PROKOFIEV The Fiery Angel
When DG’s Fiery Angel appeared I was as loud as anyone in applauding their initiative; this is a belter of an opera and it had to wait far too long for its first CD recording. However, as regards the performance I was less welcoming than most critics. At the time I had the 1957 Charles Bruck LPs to remind me what was missing under Jarvi; but that performance is in French and has long since been consigned to the rarity department. Soon after the DG issue came the Covent Garden production, superbly conducted by Sir Edward Downes. That was a shared enterprise with the Kirov/Maryinsky, and those who saw the London performances will know that they were only a qualified success. But now there is Gergiev and his home team in a live recording of the same production, and at last we have something close to the music’s full potential revealed.
The opera itself is no blameless masterpiece – Prokofiev’s indulgence in lurid sensationalism sometimes gets the better of his artistic judgement, as I explained in my earlier reveiw. But that sounds a pretty po-faced judgement in the face of the overwhelming power which so much of this score exudes. Or should exude. It was Jarvi, in his interview with David Nice in the July 1991
The comparison is of course unfair, as the Maryinsky performance comes live from what is clearly a highly-charged occasion in one of the world’s great opera houses. That brings with it the disadvantage of a constrained opera-pit acoustic, which makes some of Prokofiev’s over-the-top scoring seem pretty congested. But the immediacy and clarity of the sound, plus the orchestra’s rhythmic grasp, ensures that the effect is still properly blood-curdling.
If Leiferkus’s distinctive rich baritone at first sounds a touch microphoney, the ear can soon adjust to that too, and Gorchakova brings intense beauty as well as intensity to Renata’s hysterics, taking us inside the psychological drama in a way DG’s Nadine Secunde was always struggling to achieve. The supporting roles are filled with more consistent distinction than either DG or Covent Garden could muster, and this makes a huge difference to the sustaining of dramatic tension, the crescendo which Prokofiev aimed to build through his five acts.
Considering the extent of the stage goings-on there is remarkably little audience distraction on the recording. Inevitably there is some clumping around from the acrobats, and those who have not seen the staged version will not realise what an inspired touch it was on David Freeman’s part to include them, as representations of Renata’s delusions.
Philips have issued the performance on video, in a production extremely well directed by Brain Large. If you have the facility for relaying video sound through hi-fi loudspeakers it may well be that you will find this version the more attractive investment. That’s certainly my feeling after seeing the lurid final scene of mass possession and failed exorcisms in the convent to which Renata has retreated.'