This is easily the best of the two CD recordings available of "The Fiery Angel" but I can't recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who can possibly see the opera on DVD or -- fat chance! -- on stage. There's a stunningly fine DVD released by ArtHaus, with the same cast as this CD, performed by the Kirov Opera in 1993. The same production was offered in London and San Francisco, and perhaps in other cities. What's the problem then? Alas, the DVD is available only in "region 2" format and will not be playable on the "region 1" equipment of nearly all American homes. You'll need an "all region" DVD player, or possibly you can watch it on your desk-top computer, using headphones. Americans, unite and riot! You're being cheated, mistreated, deprived of many very fine films, not just of operas, that are available to Europeans but not to you!
"The Fiery Angel" is indeed a flaming spectacle of an opera. It begins with a scene of demonic possession, or else of dementia, in which the beautiful Renata is found raving, tormented by writhing near-naked demons (the men of the Maryinsky Acrobatic Troupe), who continue to lurk on the stage throughout the production. Eventually the drama will include a sword fight, a lurid ludicrous tavern scene, and a climactic orgy in a nunnery, in which the nuns are stripped of their habits by the demons and flung naked around the stage, while the Grand Inquisitor hurls imprecations and exorcisms in vain. It seems that even today The Fiery Angel is too flamboyant for many opera audiences, and it remains 'controversial' even while off-stage nudity has become standard fare at the Salzburg Mozart Festival.
Renata has been "possessed" since childhood by her vision of the beautiful spirit Madiel, but whether Madiel is indeed a 'fiery angel' or a devil is the core question of the drama, amounting to a synedoche of the conflicting perceptions of Religion of any sort, as Possession by Good or Evil. But expect a straightforward resolution of that conflict! The Grand Inquisitor is no more patently the spokesman for God in this opera than is the cynical Mephitopheles, who appears in the tavern scene of the fourth act, with Doctor Faustus in tow. Both the Inquistor and Mephisto are costumed in bright red. Renata is 'rescued' from her tormenting visions, in the opening scene of the opera, by the wandering knight Ruprecht, who first attempts to seduce her but who then becomes "possessed" by unreciprocated Love for her. Together, Renata and Ruprecht travel to Cologne in search of Renata's previous lover, Count Heinrich, whom she identifies as the incarnation of Madiel but who abandoned her in disgust. The duel in act three will be fought by Ruprecht and Heinrich, after which Renata will seek 'sanctity' in the convent. This plot might sound convoluted and obscure, but it isn't. The libretto, which Prokofiev prepared himself, is quite lucid, and the dramatic structure of the opera makes the bizarre magical events of the tale expressively immediate. This is surely one of the most intense, emotionally challenging operas ever composed!
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote The Fiery Angel slowly, over the course of at least eight years, from 1919 to 1927, as he traveled from the USA to the Bavarian Alps (Oberammergau) to Paris. He interested conductor Bruno Walter in staging the opera in Berlin, but the project failed. In fact, The Fiery Angel was not staged anywhere until 1954, a year after the composer's death. That production used a French libretto; the original Russian libretto was lost until 1977. The opera was not performed in Russia until the onset of "perestroika".
Meanwhile in 1933 Prokofiev returned to Russia, to the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin, the Grandest Inquisitor of all. It was perhaps the lack of acclaim for his music in the West that sent Prokofiev back to Russia and into a kind of "possession" as demonic as anything suffered by Renata or Ruprecht in his opera. In fact, Prokofiev was highly successful in Russia, despite his avant-garde dissonance. He found an outlet for his music in the greatest films of the Soviet era and in his ballets. His later operas, including "War and Peace", were successfully staged and well received. Even so, in 1948 he was condemned for 'formalism' and forced to humble himself in apology; his wife was condemned for anti-Soviet acts and sentenced to prison. Prokofiev's health was damaged and he had to compose the merest hour a day for the rest of his life. Aptly and symbolically, he died on precisely the day in 1953 when Stalin's 'cult of personality' was publicly denounced. The composer of this potent operatic drama of Possession and Inquisition had lived to experience his own nightmarish vision.
"The Fiery Angel" is one of the very greatest operas of the Twentieth Century. I'd go out on the limb and call it one of the ten greatest. But it's not just the drama and the symbolic depths that make it great. It's the music, which is as fiery and witty as anything Prokofiev ever wrote. No other composer except Leos Janacek succeeded as completely as Prokofiev in subsuming the melodic lyricism of 19th C Romanticism with the astringent tonal/atonal complexities of modernism, melding the best of both. Ironically, Prokofiev's 'Soviet era' music has been extremely popular in the United States; in fact, his compositions are heard more often on American 'classical music' radio broadcasts than those of any other composer! One of the marches from his early opera "Love for Three Oranges" was the theme song for a radio serial about the FBI in the 1950s. Even so, his music has been persistently under-rated by critics and musicologists of the elite in the USA, and his operas have been neglected in favor of other inferior works. Let's all shout at or write to our local opera impresarios and try to change that!
The role of Renata in "The Fiery Angel" is extremely demanding, by the way. Renata sings about two-thirds of all the vocal passages in the opera; the difficulty of the role might be one of the factors that limit the productions of the work. For a successful staging, everything depends on the casting of Renata. Galina Gorchakova, who sings Renata on this CD and on the DVD, is superb both vocally and dramatically, from her first shrieks of madness to her final fiery apotheosis.