The Fiery Angel is a presents some difficulties in the performance and tends to turn-off people with its bizarre plot. The story concerns Renata, who was visited by an angel named Madiel from the age of 8, and who taught her how to lead a life of purity. He appeared to her wearing a white gown and bathed in light. However, Renata fell in love with the angel and desired a more carnal relationship. At this suggestion, Madiel was enraged and becomes enraged. Before disappearing in a ball of flame, Madiel promises to return in human form. Thereafter, Renata searched for the angel and believed she found him in Count Heinrich. With him, she has a
passionate relationship but he disappeared leaving her searching for him and having terrifying visions. Ruprecht falls in love with Renata and becomes her protector.
The story is one of occult interest with the heroine (or perhaps
anti-heroine) Renata being possessed by the angel Madiel and, in turn, attempts to posses the knight Ruprecht. While one is sympathetic toward Renata because of the constant visions that torture her we can sense her manipulative power as she provokes Ruprecht in an attempt to kill Count Heinrich, whom she suspects is Madiel returned to earth in a different form.
Prokofiev based The Fiery Angel on a novel by Valery Bryusov, published in 1907, that he discovered in America in 1919. He began the opera in 1920 but the work did not go smoothly and it was not completed until 1927, and revised it later in attempts to have it performed (it was not performed until 1955). Eventually, the music found its way into the Third Symphony
in 1928. The action of the opera is episodic than flowing. The scene with Faust and Mephistopheles is gratutitous and does not advance the story but does have occult interest. Also, in the last act of the opera, Ruprecht only observes as Renata is condemned to death, taking no part in defending the woman he loves. The opera has been described as being more a symphony in the guise of an opera. For me, despite the shortcomings of this opera, it is a remarkable work that has some powerful moments.
The occult subject matter and the difficulty of the role of Renata consigned the opera to oblivion until recently. This recording of The Fiery Angel is from a landmark production by the Mariinsky Theater in 1993 and won the Gramophone award for best opera. This is a live recording but the audience is quiet, and stage noise is minimal. Galina Gorchakova is perfect as Renata and conveys her vulnerability and torment. Sergei Leiferkus is excellent as Ruprecht, and the remaining cast members give wonderful performances with Vladimir Ognovenko being particularly sinister as the Inquisitor. Most of all, Valery Gergiev deserves praise for his peerless conducting of this opera and proving that The Fiery Angel is among Prokofiev's masterpieces.