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Monday, September 28, 2015

L'ANGELO DI FUOCO -- LA FENICE, VENEZIA -- 1955.

Speranza

Some say that Renata, the principal character in Prokofiev's opera "L'ANGELO DI FUOCO", is one of the most fascinating characters in opera from a psychological viewpoint.

This is perhaps the weirdest, most bizarre and disturbing opera of all time,and deals with sorcery , demonology, necromancy , and demonic posession in 16th century Germany, at the height of the Inquisition.

Renata is an insane religious mystic who is obsessed with finding her imaginary childhood companion Madiel, the angel of fire of the title, who is in fact a demon (a fallen angel), and hopes to find him in human form, as he told her he would.

She is befriended by a wandering knight Ruprecht, who falls desperately in love with Renata although his love is not requited, and the two have a fascinating but sick relationship.

The two contact leading necromancers of the day and become involved in the most sinister black magic.

Ruprecht confers with the sorcerer Agrippa Von Nettesheim, a historical figure, but he claims to be merely a philosopher and scientist.

But the skeletons on the wall of his study say "You're lying!".

Renata is frightened by her physical attraction to Ruprecht and rejects his offer of marriage.

When Renata confronts a certain conte, IL CONTE ENRICO, whom she believes to be the incarnation of Madiel and he spurns her, she demands that Ruprecht kill him in a duel.

Ruprecht tells her that she is deluded and that he is just an ordinary man.

But later, Renata has a strange vision in which she is convinced that he IS Madiel, but commands him to fight ENRICO anyway, and he is gravely wounded but survives.

At the beginning, Renata is having horrible hallucinations of being tormented by demons in an inn where the two are staying, and he comforts her.

She tells him the strange story of how Madiel came to her as a child, but left her when she asked for aphysical relationship when she became an adolescent.

Eventually, things have gotten so out of hand that Renata decides to become a nun and joins a convent.

But the sisters are being horribly disturbed by demons , and an inquisitor is called in to perform an exorcism on her.

But the exorcism goes horribly out of control , and the nuns begin tobe possessed and total chaos and horror overtake the convent.

In a rage, the inquisitor orders Renata tobe tortured and burned at the stake as a sorceress.

Prokofiev's music is almost unbearably intense and filled with unbelievably harsh but highly expressive dissonances.

Siegmund Freud would have found Renata and Ruprecht most fascinating.

L'ANGELO DI FUOCO is a great opera.

There is a very good DVD of it.

The Fiery Angel (1927), opera in five acts, music and libretto by Sergei Prokofiev, after the novel (1908) by Valerio Bryusov, sung in Russian

Prokofiev worked on L'ANGELO DI FUOCO from 1919 through 1927, and loved it deeply.

Prokofiev was however unable to see it staged during his lifetime after several attempts, to the point that he abandoned hope and recycled some of the material for his Symphony no. 3.

It was only one year and a half after the death of the composer that this opera premiered in concert form at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1954.

 The first staged performance followed a year later at La Fenice in VENEZIA.

It was however only in 1983 that this opera was first given with the original libretto in Russian.

Valéry Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater staged this opera and this is the version that we find here on this DVD, with stage direction by David Freeman (a frequent collaborator with composers of contemporary operas) and design by David Roger.

The video direction is by Brian Large.

The work is performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater, with the acrobatic dancing devils provided by The St. Petersburg Mariinsky Acrobatic Troupe.

The cast includes in the two leading roles of Renata and Ruprecht respectively soprano Galina Gorchakova and baritone Sergei Leferkus.

The other roles are sung by the following all-Russian artists, by order of appearance:

Hostess ... Evgenia Perlasova-Verkovich
Porter ... Mikhail Kit
Fortune-teller - Larissa Dyadkova
Jakob Clock ... Evgeni Boitsov
Agrippa ... Vladimir Galuzin
Mathias ...Yuri Laptev
Doctor - Valery Lebed
Mephistopheles - Konstantin Pluzhnikov
Faust - Sergei Alexashkin
Host - Evgeni Fedotov
Three neighbors - Mikhail Chernozhukov, Andrei Karabanov, Gennady Bezzubinkov
Mother Superior - Olga Markova-Mikhailenko
Inquisitor - Vladimir Ognovenko
Two Young Nuns - Tatiana Filimonova, Tatiana Dravtsova

We're facing greatness here.

L'ANGELO DI FUOCO is a masterpiece, arguably Prokofiev's best operatic effort.

The score is extremely powerful, expressive, vivid, colourful, and the vocal writing is equally good.

Theatrically the work is very appealing, and the libretto is of the highest quality.

The running time of only 124 minutes in spite of five acts adds to the enjoyment because it accounts for a rather intense roller coaster kind of experience.

Second, we have in our hands a masterful performance, by all artists involved with this production.

Staging is exquisite and imaginative, and conveys perfectly the nightmarish atmosphere of the work, with inventive solutions such as the partial walls in act 1, and the constant presence of the bluish devils who engage in impressive acrobatic dance (you can see them on the top half of the cover picture).

The minimalist scenarios with slanted partial walls and platforms as well as stylized colorful buildings are both beautiful and effective, and stage direction in terms of singers/actors movements and dynamics of space are expertly done, with certain scenes getting to be as visually striking as well balanced paintings.

Warning for the prude and faint of heart: there are disturbing scenes and graphic nudity.

If I had any doubts left about Gergiev's gifts, they would get dismissed for good, here.

Given the right material, Gergiev can extract gold from his orchestra, and this is one such occasion.

His interpretation is energetic and entirely satisfactory, and the orchestra plays beautifully under his waving hands.

Gorchakova is simply spectacular in the role of Renata.

She is a specialist in this repertory, having interpreted this role in Milano, as well as many of the major Russian roles in operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Glinka.

She is attractive, has great stage presence and good acting skills, sings with full dramatic force, and has a beautiful voice.

Her stage companion Lerfeikus also has a beautiful voice.

No complaints about the secondary roles.

This is a talented group of singers and weak links are hard to find.

Brian Large's video direction is flawless, achieving the right balance between close-ups, panoramic takes, and details of the acrobatic devils that are filmed at the exact moments that do not distract from the singing, and he goes back to the singers fast enough. He's helped by the competent BBC videotaping and editing crew.

Technically speaking, this ArtHaus Musik release with RM Associates and the BBC is generally good but could be better.

The liner notes are complete enough with a nice essay on Prokofiev's tribulations to write this work and insights about leitmotifs and other musical devices, as well as a synopsis, the biography of the main artists, and a chapter list in Russian with duration (but unfortunately, no character list for each track).

These texts are available in English.

Optional, non-intrusive subtitles are provided in English, and one of course profoundly laments the fact that they are not provided in Russian.

Sound format is only given in PCM stereo and is of extraordinary clarity, but sometimes the orchestra does smother the singers - it's hard to know if it is due to microphone placement, poor sound engineering, or just Gergiev's enthusiasm for this score.

We believe it's the latter because the sound does seem well balanced, maybe Gergiev could have toned down his forces a little bit.

We really can't understand the Amazon reviewer who complained that the orchestra doesn't get enough presence from the sound mixing - more presence than this would deafen the audience and we might as well not have singers because we wouldn't be able to hear them!

Image, like in most PAL DVDs, is sharper and more colorful than that in their NTSC counterparts.

The format is unfortunately 4:3, making one regret the lost opportunity to have a wider view of the beautiful scenarios.

So, while we're treated here to good liner notes, clear sound and sharp image, we still crave a surround track (with more emphasis on the voices and less on the orchestra) and widescreen image to do more justice to this spectacular work and this exquisite staging, as well as Russian subtitles (I don't speak Russian but I like to have second screenings with original language subtitles to better understand and enjoy the sonority of the words).

 This is the kind of performance that deserves an Opus Arte blu-ray disc.

Regardless of these small technical shortcomings, this is one of the best opera DVDs I've ever seen, and gets, of course, my Highly Recommended seal, and I'm sure it will easily get Natalie's "Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!" seal once she sees it.

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