I reckon that anyone involved with a staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel must spend a great deal of time wondering where the hell they can start with – Valery Bryusov’s story is both fascinating and puzzling, Prokofiev has composed music that makes the audience feel as if they had been swept by a tsunami and all roles are challenging to sing and to act, let alone sing and act at the same time. The Komische Oper has decided that the only way to face a task like that is without a safety net. Berlin’s “third” opera house has a tradition of presenting the entire repertoire in translation, but opted instead for the original Russian libretto this time. Then Australian enfant-terrible theatre director Benedict Andrews has been invited to direct it. Fortune favors the bold – this 2014 production was very well received by critics and has been drawing audiences to the opera house in Behrenstraße ever since.
This is actually the first time I’ve seen this opera. Until yesterday, I had only known it through Neeme Järvi recording with Nadine Secunde and Siegfried Lorenz. While listening to it, I had curiously never “staged” it in my mind, but what I’ve just seen makes me feel it could not have been done otherwise. Although Mr. Andrews quotes David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as an influence (surprisingly apt), the staging never fails to convince because it has been able to be: a) faithful to the libretto without being overwhelmed by it; b) adventurous without exaggeration – the plot as it is has impact to spare; c) universal by going beyond the immediate symbology and yet very Russian in its aesthetic and its very particular large dramatic gestures (and even a hint of comedy). In this staging, Renata is a victim of child abuse who acts out by creating a scenario in which she was instead “visited by an angel”. The problem is: when she becomes aware of her own sexuality and tries to sexually relate to “the angel”, she is no longer a victim, she is the perpetrator. She chastises herself and is tormented by demons. Ruprecht is another outsider who develops some sort of folie à deux with the beautiful and provocative young woman who demands everything from him… but sex. If I have to be picky, the final scene in the convent would ideally require an approach less taken at face value to be fully coherent with the overall concept. In any case, it does not spoil the fun at all: the production is always visually catching, imaginative and interesting.
Svetlana Sozdateleva denies her Renata nothing – she plunges into the role without thinking twice. Her voice is not typically shrill or wobbly, but rather warm enough as the part requires, but it is a bit unfocused, especially in the middle register. She makes for it in stamina and clarity of articulation. Evez Abdulla’s baritone has a tenor-ish edge and a keenness on cantabile even in the most declamatory passages that makes his Ruprecht particularly congenial. Jens Larssen was a particularly firm-toned and powerful Inquisitor, the only member in the cast who could actually preside over an invariably loud orchestra. I wouldn’t blame veteran conductor Vassily Sinaisky for that, though: the performance ran with absolute clarity and unfailing rhythmic propulsion. Even tested by the heavy demands, the house orchestra acquitted itself commendably.