Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
The Fiery Angel, Op. 37 (1923)
While Prokofiev waited for the production of Love for Three Oranges he took up another subject, The Fiery Angel, an opera in five acts to his own libretto, based on the 1907 novel by Valery Bryusov. He began sketching the scenario late in 1919. In March 1922, he went to Ettal, a town near Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, to devote time to the opera in a location congruent with its German setting. A piano score was completed before the end of the next year.
In 1925, Albert Wolff proposed to stage the work at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where Prokofiev was then living, but this failed to materialize. Bruno Walter accepted The Fiery Angel for production at the Städtische Oper in Berlin, where Love for Three Oranges had had a great success. In the summer of 1926, Prokofiev signed a contract for the 1927–28 season, and had to orchestrate the opera in a great hurry, with the help of an assistant named Georgy Nikolayevich Gorchakov. Delays in the copying of the parts prevented performance that season, and the production was cancelled. When in 1930 the Metropolitan Opera expressed interest in the score, Prokofiev began another revision, but that production also fell through. The first complete concert performance was given on 25 November 1954, in French (under the title L’Ange de feu), at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The stage premiere took place in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice on 14 September 1955.
Bryusov cast The Fiery Angel as a “sixteenth-century romance” set in Renaissance Germany, where burgeoning humanism coexisted uneasily with a highly rationalized, scholastically elaborated occult lore. The novel’s detailed subtitle not only adds to the period flavor but amounts to a virtual synopsis:
A True Story in which is related of the Devil, not once but often appearing in the Image of a Spirit of Light to a Maiden and seducing her to Various and Many Sinful Deeds, of Ungodly Practices of Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, the Cabalistical Sciences and Necromancy, of the Trial of the Said Maiden under the Presidency of His Eminence the Archbishop of Trier, as well as of Encounters and Discourses with the Knight and thrice Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim, and with Doctor Faustus, composed by an Eyewitness.1
The opera centers on Renata’s obsession with the vision of Madiel, a fiery (male) angel who consumed her thoughts in childhood but who left her when, on reaching puberty, she asked him to consummate their relationship. Renata, possessed by spirits, meets Ruprecht and tells him her past history; Ruprecht falls in love with her and commits himself to helping find Madiel with “cabalistical sciences and necromancy.” The angel’s image possesses her, and she marries Count Heinrich, believing that in him Madiel has returned to earth. Heinrich eventually leaves Renata, prompting a duel between him and Ruprecht. After tending to Ruprecht’s wounds they live for a time together before she finally leaves him. Renata joins a convent; however, she infects the nuns with her hysteria. She is condemned as a witch and burned at the stake.
In the last act, set in the convent, Prokofiev makes use of dramatic vocalization. Strings, marked in the score con sordino, play a seven-measure introduction followed by nuns singing from behind the curtain (see Example). No vowel indication is given in the score. These disembodied voices create a tranquil mood, soon to be disrupted by the hysteria of the nuns. They also give the scene a mystical quality, leading to the supernatural events that follow.
Prokofiev, The Fiery Angel, act 5, mm. 1–182
(Nauman 2009, 203–5)
|Act 5 (opening)|
1 Translated by Richard Taruskin, liner notes to The Fiery Angel, by Sergey Prokofiev, Deutsche Grammophon DG 431 669-2, 13.
2 Serge Prokofieff, The Fiery Angel (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1994), 487–88.