The Fiery Angel is about one girl becoming a woman in a world of men. Renata's "angel" is the embodiment of her desires. She desires love, but encounters only lust. And hysteria. And fear. Within moments of the curtain rising, Prokofiev's heroine tells all in a narration that sets the dramatic tone for the entire opera. Her words are spilt in onomatopoeic profusion over longing legatos in the orchestra. "Have pity... have pity...": the same infernal phrase is endlessly reiterated.
But there is no pity. Everything of beauty in Prokofiev's score is systematically subverted. The bilious phantasmagoria of passages we've come to know so well from the Third Symphony acquires voices raised in defiance: like the second scene of Act 2, where Ruprecht (the incisive Sergei Leiferkus) and Agrippa invoke "the science of sciences" while the orchestra warns of the Inquisition. Or the reptilian slitherings of divided strings as Renata waits in vain for the object of her desire to appear.
There is no more uncompromising, unrelenting score in operatic literature: and no role more demanding than that of Renata. The Kirov's young star, Galina Gorchakova, may yet pay the price for courting it so early in her meteoric career. But she is tremendous. It's a performance on the edge, and beyond. Hear her voicing disillusionment in the ways of men, then pleading for the angel of the morning of her youth to return to her. It's heartbreaking, this pitiful sound of innocence and reason lost. She knocks spots off Nadine Secunde in Neeme Jarvi's DG recording. But then, getting in first was the only headstart that Jarvi was ever likely to have over an all-Russian cast performing in their language, their theatre, and in the heat of performance to boot. It's not an act you follow.
And, of course, there is Valery Gergiev, mindful as ever of the score's textural and harmonic sophistication, but firing up the proceedings with a will - not least in the hysteria of the final scene. If ever musical sounds were X-rateable, then these are they. Does any single scene in opera travel further between the apparent tranquillity of its prelude (truly an eerie peace of mind, body and spirit) and the sexual frenzy of its denouement? Ken Russell's "devils" are chaste by comparison.
Prokofiev's Fiery Angel is proof that, whatever some directors may think, it's the music that finally makes or breaks an opera. The plot is grotesquely sensationalist - self-mutilation, singing skeletons, devils devouring servant boys, crazed nuns - while the frustrated sexuality of its heroine, Renata, is drawn with something like the panting prurience of a tabloid sex 'n' horror feature. So why is it so compelling? The answer must be Prokofiev's score - fabulously inventive, richly atmospheric and relentless in its catastrophic forward drive. The use of repetition - now hypnotic, now terrifying - may have been inspired by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but the effect is quite different. Stravinsky exhilarates, Prokofiev simultaneously inflames and disturbs.
This Kirov production, recorded live in St Petersburg in 1993, may not match the refinement of playing and sound in Jarvi's DG version, but the power and expressive intensity are of another order. Gergiev sustains the impetus right through to the end, and for once the final "possession" scene, with its frenzied massed chanting, is no anticlimax: it's the outcome of a huge dramatic crescendo that begins with Renata's desperate muttering in Scene 1.
As Renata, Gorchakova is outstanding - precise, intense, anguished and growing in demonic power. As Ruprecht, the eternal loser, Leiferkus brings a welcome note of dignity. Characterisation is excellent throughout the cast, with the Mephistopheles-Faust double-act scoring especially high points for grim comedy.
Questions about the opera still linger, but this is the kind of performance that insists you go back and explore further.