Fascinating challenge of demonic possession

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You have to hand it to Prokofiev. In 1919, when he was not yet 30, he hatched a plan to write an opera about devil possession – one of the great taboos of human history and still, nearly a century later, a touchy subject in public. It was a favourite of the early-20th-century Russian symbolists, one of whom, Valery Bryusov, wrote the novel on which the opera is based. It also exercised 16th-century Germany, where the tale is set.

After various false starts Prokofiev eventually wrote his opera – about a possessed woman and the havoc she wreaks on those who cross her path – but he never lived to see it performed. Instead he cannibalised some of the music for his Fourth Symphony, and very compelling it sounds in that non-dramatic context.

The Fiery Angel had to wait until 1954, a year after Prokofiev’s death, for a first hearing, but only in concert and in French. Since then it has been capably staged by a handful of the more daring western companies, and more recently in Russia, winning “special” status along the way. With its odd shape and unreasonable demands on the leading singers, the opera is undeniably problematic, yet it exerts an irresistible fascination. What it offers the interpreter is a garish musical excitement, a ton of dramatic primitivism and intermittent psychological potential.

That’s why I was looking forward to Richard Jones’s new staging at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. I wanted to recover some of the thrill I felt when I first encountered the work many moons ago in Freiburg, with the young Vivian Tierney as Renata. And with Jones’s famous Cardiff staging of The Queen of Spades at the back of my mind, I reckoned he was just the man to do justice to Prokofiev’s nightmare vision.

I was wrong – yet Jones’s disappointing staging may perversely have done everyone a favour by pulling the wool from our eyes about how good The Fiery Angel really is.

It’s entirely understandable that a work as energetic as this should cause an initial thrill, but its performance history remains shallow. Only with the passage of time, and without the more sensationalist effects of those initial stagings (effects that, it’s true, the work invites), do its flaws begin to weigh it down.

The principal drawback is that there are only two proper characters: Renata and her besotted knight-protector Ruprecht. Even they have monochrome personalities, thanks to Prokofiev’s refusal to let us see them in any other context than a trajectory to hell.

The pace flags whenever the opera is not focusing on witchcraft and other symptoms of Renata’s obsession. Too often you get the feeling that this was one of the wilder flights of Prokofiev’s imagination, and that the judgment of his contemporaries may have not been so unfair.

Jones and his designers, John Macfarlane and Nicky Gillibrand, set the opera in modern dress against abstract walls and stylised urban backdrops. It looked like a reheated consommé of previous collaborations. The comic grotesquerie was underplayed, and Jones’s only insight was a posse of grizzled Renata lookalikes flooding the stage whenever her demons took control.

It was a mistake to sing it in Russian: the “original” French would have been more understandable and would have created imaginative casting possibilities. Elena Popovskaya’s Renata was hardly compelling, and the tension with Tómas Tómasson’s Ruprecht was never established. It was left to Kazushi Ono and his orchestra to inspire us with Prokofiev’s motor-driven rhythmic patterns and sizzling crescendos.

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