Once in a while an opera video comes my way that’s so bonkers that I hardly know how to describe it. Emma Dante’s production of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel; recorded at Teatro dell’opera di Roma in 2019 would be a candidate for the most bonkers of all!
Part of the problem is the piece itself. I think there are good reasons why it wasn’t performed in the composer’s lifetime. The plot; which I shall attempt to outline, would raise eyebrows even today. So what’s it about? We are in 16th century Germany and there are two principal characters. Renata is a woman who believes she has visions of a “bright angel” Madiel who is represented on earth by Count Heinrich, who she pursues relentlessly, but who may actually be the Devil. She’s also subject to violent mood swings and keeps going on about her prospects of salvation. In the end she joins a convent where all sorts of supernatural things start to happen until she is condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor. Ruprecht is a German officer, returned from the wars, who is obsessed with Renata. He doggedly follows her despite her scornful treatment of him which includes fighting a duel on her behalf at her demand and then being told in brutal terms he had no right to do so. Along the way we meet assorted fortune tellers, doctors, mages and scholars plus Faust and Mephistopheles. None of it makes much sense.
Now, enter, Emma Dante who has a very unusual and forceful directing style. She has a troop of actors and dancers who take on roles that perhaps are really not actually supposed to be seen on stage such as Count Heinrich and Madiel, who is represented here by a breakdancer. She’s also obsessed with death, burial and ritual and much given to making her characters move in extreme and grotesque ways. She also inserts silent scenes between the acts that aren’t entirely obvious. This serves to add an extra layer of visual complexity without really clarifying why anything is happening the way it is.
The death and burial theme is exemplified by the sets for four of the five acts; which are based on the Palermo catacombs (not an obvious representation of an inn in southern Germany for example!). In act 1 they are populated by actors who writhe and grimace and engage in sexual acts. In Act 5 they have been replaced by empty eye socketed dummies dressed like the nuns and priests on stage and backed up by a skeletal crucifix. A good example of her approach is the Act 3 duel between Ruprecht and Heinrich; which may be the best thing in the opera. It starts out as a very well done conventional fight scene but it gets more stylized and more grotesque as two breakdancing “angels” appear and a slow procession of rather sinister looking clerics in weird red robes observe the proceedings. This is followed by one of the interpolated scenes in which two cripples fight a duel with their crutches. I could go on but shan’t.
Musically it’s a mixed bag. The orchestral writing is generally very good rising to real distinction in the duel scene and the finale (an extended exorcism). The vocal writing is much less interesting being largely loud and declamatory. The only thing approaching an aria is Renata’s “Prosti, menja Madiel” which precedes the Act 3 duel and is rather beautiful. Overall it feels relentlessly loud and quite tiring.
The singers don’t really have a whole lot to work with vocally but they do show great commitment to the director’s vision. Ewa Vesin as Renata does convey the kind of unhinged but “logical in her own terms” Renata and she has a powerful but not overly piercing soprano. Leigh Melrose as Ruprecht also proves himself a very capable actor. The many minor roles are all well executed. Perhaps the best are Maxim Paster as a very colourful Mephistopheles and, especially, Goran Jurić in a powerfully sung and rather scary cameo as the Grand Inquisitor. The actors and dancers aren’t credited in the booklet but in many ways they are amazing; especially the guy playing the very weird Count Heinrich, the breakdancers and the Innkeeper’s Boy who produces a startlingly athletic few minutes. The chorus sing well and blend into the wilder stage antics extremely well. The orchestra, under Alejo Pérez produce quite a Russian sound with blaring brass and imposing percussion.
Video direction is by Carlo Gallucci. At first I thought he was focussing too much on the principals but actually overall it’s pretty balanced and gives a decent representation of what’s going on on stage. Indeed, sometimes a close-up serves as a temporary relief from the relentless busyness. On Blu-ray it’s a fine picture and the sound (LPCM stereo and DTS-HD-MA 5.1) manages the very dense sound stage nicely. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet; besides a track listing and (very necessary) synopsis includes a good interview with the director. Subtitle options are English, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.
At the end of watching this video I did something I rarely do. I watched right through the curtain calls to see how the Rome audience had reacted. Was i perhaps missing the power of seeing this immersively in the theatre? I think not. There was no unseemly booing or catcalling but the applause was as muted as I have ever heard in a major house. My guess is that the Rome audience left as puzzled as I was and probably in need of a stiff drink.