Prokofiev – The Fiery Angel

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday January 28 2007

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Richard Jones. Sets: John Macfarlane. Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand. Ruprecht: Tómas Tómasson. Renata: Elena Popovskaya. Fortune-Teller: Elena Manistina. Landlady: Beata Morawska. Mephistopheles: Leonid Bomshteyn. Agrippa von Nettesheim: Vitali Taraschenko. Johann Faust: Ante Jerkunica. Inquisitor: Vladimir Samsonov. Mother Superior: Maria Gortsevskaya. Jacob Glock: Lorenzo Caròla. Doctor: Zeno Popescu. Mathias Wissmann: Andrej Baturkin. Innkeeper: Nabil Suliman. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Sometimes it takes an exceptional performance to crack a thorny work. I have two recordings of The Fiery Angel, one in French and the other in Russian, and have seen it at least once before. But in my mind it remained pigeonholed as an incomprehensible (in fact mad) story set to a noisy score. This Brussels production made sense of both.

It was clear from the opening bars that the orchestra of La Monnaie was on especially good form. It’s a medium-sized orchestra: I counted just five double basses, for example. The playing was precise throughout and more often sensitive, delicate and transparent than loud and violent. Orchestra and singers were equal partners in the action, not battling against each other along “anything you can scream, I can scream louder” lines. As a result, the interrelation between action and music was made legible, elucidating the use of recurrent themes and the overall form of the work.

Equally and more remarkably legible was the story, until now for some reason impenetrable to me, here told simply in bold, bright images. The overall atmosphere was “angular” neo-expressionist, created by John Macfarlane’s semi-abstract sets of tatty rooms and rough-hewn skyscrapers in shades of pale grey, lemon and beige, starkly lit from front and sides in white yellow or gold, and the vaguely “Soviet” workers’ uniforms and square, peaked caps marching through the streets or sitting smoking in the inn.

Renata wore a simple dress in what looked like a Pucci “harlequin” print, flat shoes and long red hair. While listening to Ruprecht (if listening at all), she clambered, self-absorbed, on the table or bed to draw circles, symbols, runes, and her angel’s face and wings on the walls in rough charcoal. When she was possessed by her demons, these appeared: Renata look-alikes but with pop-eyed masks, stragglier hair, smudged dresses and legs, dancing around her with grotesque glee, unseen by anyone else, throwing books and pillows around like poltergeists and disappearing with ingenious speed when interrupted.

Ruprecht, in “sensible” contrast, was dressed in plain black: a tee-shirt and jeans. The fortune-teller was in eastern-European housing-estate drag: formless trousers, a sagging crocheted cardigan and a shopping-bag of tricks. Agrippa von Nettesheim walked a splendid pair of monstrous, snarling, hairy, dog-like creatures with prominent buttocks, rearing up on high-heeled shoes, and was mocked in unison from his library by three very cute, jaunty, Mexican-style skeletons. The nuns, in modern yellow habits with grey wimples, did a passable line in jittery frenzy, and at the (abrupt) end Renata was consumed in the stage flames that had always been present in one form or another, whether to warm her room, or as a brazier in the street, or to burn books, tipped from wheelbarrows, during orchestral passages.

This is very nearly a two-character opera, turning on the strength of its two lead singers. Tómas Tómasson, though irreproachable throughout (in a solid way that could be viewed as fundamentally in character), was slightly “en retrait” in relation to the excellent Elena Popovskaya. According to the programme notes she has begun a career along old Soviet-school lines, ranging already from Purcell’s Dido to Puccini’s Turandot. She has all the qualities of a young Russian soprano: power, range, rounded sound, all reminiscent of the young Vishnevskaya, and as yet none of the typical defects (wobble, dodgy control, woozy tuning…) of an older one. And she can act. This was a first-rate performance.

First-rate too were Elena Manistina and Vitali Taraschenko, high-class casting for such brief parts.

I mentioned smoking in the inn scene, where fag-ends were piled up in giant ashtrays on the tables. So, it turned out, did the programme. Now that it is banned in public places in Belgium, we were assured that all cigarettes used on stage were guaranteed fake. What the programme didn’t mention was whether this production would travel. I hope it will: it deserves to be seen more widely.


  1. Great review. Some demanding scores just need that one performance to make them convincing, and before that one performance, they are to some degree mush.



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