Bring on the angels and demons - and get thee behind us, Dan Brown. After last weekend's Betrothal in a Monastery comes exorcism in a nunnery. Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel is very much the dark side of this equation, and it brings the Bolshoi Opera to the Royal Opera House in what might be seen as a timely if unwitting challenge to the Kirov at the Coliseum. For those of us quietly observing this Russian occupation of the capital's opera houses, comparisons, not to say checks and balances, are inevitable. Conclusions? Traditions die hard.
Much as the Kirov's Shostakovich brought us old ideas in new packaging, so too did the Bolshoi's Prokofiev. The Fiery Angel is an unsettling masterpiece about repression, sexual and civil. It's the flip side of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and as such benefits from a woman's touch. It gets one from director Francesca Zambello, though there were times during the first half of this 2004 staging when it looked and felt as though she had phoned in her direction.
As I say, traditions die hard and you can lead a great old Russian institution to fresh water but you can't make it drink. Zambello's best intentions here were time and again stymied by cumbersome design (George Tsypin), poor production values and hammy performing styles.
But good ideas to some extent will out, and the inner strength of Zambello's staging was to play on the traditions of this company and anchor the show in everyday Russian society with its anti-heroine, Renata, portrayed as a "respectable" outsider from the period of the opera's completion, 1926.
Desire and sexual longing but also also a deep and abiding suspicion fester beneath the flapper dress, cloche hat and sensible shoes. The spectre of abuse is hinted at, too, when Renata tells of how and when her "fiery angel" first came to her. She was a little girl, he the androgynous golden-haired object of her first sexual stirrings. With his creepy condescending manner and yellow floor-length Matrix-style coat, is it any wonder the poor girl grew up confused?
But any meaningful dramatic interaction is sacrificed to Tsypin's design - a monstrous tenement where a network of pipes stand out like varicose veins, and faceless figures peer from broken windows. So the only theatrical edge is provided by the portentous louring of this forbidding environment, not the "simple, pitiful mortals" who inhabit it.
Among them are some notable voices: a terrific baritone, Boris Statsenko, as the hapless, hopelessly infatuated Ruprecht; a strident tenor, Maxim Paster, as the child-eating Mephistopheles; a pneumatic mezzo, Evgenia Segenyuk, a caricature of a caricature of every operatic Fortune Teller you've ever seen; and an indomitable Inquisitor, Vadim Lynkovsky, a thug with a truncheon, not to be confused with a holy enforcer of God's will.
As Renata, Tatiana Smirnova nursed her resources and did everything and nothing for the opera. It's a good voice and technically she did all that was required - except bare her tortured soul. Where was the longing, the desire, the unnerving dementia in this singing? Where was the text? The delivery, one felt, was at one pitch, one colour; there was no risk, no danger, no sense of the conflicted emotions on which the drama hangs. She could be touching, but never scary.
Prokofiev's music is, and Alexander Vedernikov's Bolshoi Orchestra was. The fantastical aural apparitions were writ large; the erotic longings and reptilian slitherings, the thunderous premonitions of eternal damnation. Too bad there was no visual equivalent of all that. In the final moments there was something approaching a frisson when the condemned Renata effectively took the elevator to immortality. But when I think back a few years to what David Freeman did for this piece with the Kirov, I realise just how little Russian opera has moved on.
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