Possessed: The Fiery Angel at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Prokofiev – The Fiery Angel

Ruprecht – Yevgeny Nikitin

Renata – Svetlana Sozdateleva

Landlady – Heike Grötzinger

Fortune-Teller – Yelena Manistina

Agrippa of Nettesheim – Vladimir Galouzine

Faust – Igor Tsarkov

Mephistopheles – Kevin Conners

Mother Superior – Okka von der Damerau

Inquisitor – Jens Larsen

Jacob Glock – Christoph Späth

Mathias Wiessman – Tim Kuypers

Doctor – Matthew Grills

Servant – Christian Rieger

Inn-Keeper – Andrea Borghini

Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Vladimir Jurowski.

Stage director – Barrie Kosky.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich.  Saturday, December 12th, 2015.

There are some works that one waits a very long time to see live and The Fiery Angel is certainly one of those.  Part of the reason for its rarity is the highly demanding leading role for the soprano.  Prokofiev’s orchestration is extremely thick and it’s a real challenge to be able to ride the orchestra, pace oneself and deliver a dramatically convincing performance.  Originally we were due to have Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role but she withdrew last month due to ill-health and was replaced by Svetlana Sozdateleva.  Sozdateleva is a highly experienced interpreter of the role of Renata having performed it in Brussels, Berlin and Düsseldorf.  Expectations were certainly high for tonight and if they were definitely met dramatically, vocally it was more of an inconsistent evening.

Svetlana Sozdateleva, Yevgeny Nikitin, Ulrich Reß, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper © Wilfried Hösl
Svetlana Sozdateleva, Yevgeny Nikitin, Ulrich Reß, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper © Wilfried Hösl

Performed without an interval, Barrie Kosky’s production was a claustrophobic representation of the relationship between Renata and Ruprecht.  I have always found Kosky to be a great theatrical technician and a master of using crowds and these aspects were unquestionably in evidence this evening.  Where I have found issues with Kosky in the past is in his storytelling and ability to create a coherent narrative.  Tonight was different.  The relationship between Ruprecht and Renata was vividly brought to life, helped by uninhibited and highly physical performances from both Sozdateleva and Yevgeny Nikitin.  We are first introduced to Renata as she emerges from under Ruprecht’s bed, traumatized by her past.  As her relationship with Ruprecht grows we see the development of her character leading to her final manifestation of her demonic possession which was tremendously illustrated with a stage full of possessed nuns.  Not only was it visually overwhelming but those visuals were also perfectly matched to the music creating total, immersive theatre.  Elsewhere, Kosky used the ballet to the most striking effect, particularly at the appearance of Agrippa where, as a red curtain descends, hordes of tattooed dancers in drag appear and dance frantically in formation.  The sets (Rebecca Ringst) were ingenious, the size of the visible stage changing according to the scene, bringing home the claustrophobic contact between Ruprecht and Renata but also the wider picture of Renata’s journey.  Technically, it’s a tour de force and an overwhelming piece of music theatre.

Svetlana Sozdateleva, Yevgeny Nikitin © Wilfried Hösl
Svetlana Sozdateleva, Yevgeny Nikitin © Wilfried Hösl

Vocally, things were somewhat more uneven.  Renata is a thankless role for the soprano singing her.  Especially tonight with no interval, Sozdateleva was on stage throughout.  She is an experienced interpreter of the role and her native diction was a pleasure to hear.  However, her sound is somewhat soft-grained and lacking in cutting power and in the large Nationaltheater she wasn’t always audible through the dense orchestral textures.  As the evening progressed pitch started to sag but given how big a sing this role is, this is understandable.  She gave absolutely everything to the role and her commitment was unquestionable.

Yevgeny Nikitin, Goran Jurić, Kevin Conners, Igor Tsarkov, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Yevgeny Nikitin, Goran Jurić, Kevin Conners, Igor Tsarkov, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

Indeed, Sozdateleva was not the only singer to suffer from the thickness of the orchestration.  Even a singer with a voice as big as Vladimir Galouzine was inaudible as Agrippa.  It may well have been the seat that I had or an issue with the set containing the sound as the set design would have certainly affected the acoustic properties of the stage.  Nevertheless, Yevgeny Nikitin’s sturdy baritone was always audible above the orchestra tumult.  He was a tireless presence on stage, with a voice of genuine quality that never sounded pushed even at its loudest nor lost quality when he sang softly.  The remainder of the cast was of the high quality one expects in this house.  Yelena Manistina’s raspy contralto had genuine presence as the Fortune-Teller.  Okka von der Damerau’s rich and rounded mezzo likewise filled the theatre nicely as the Abbess.  Jens Larsen’s sturdy bass boomed magnificently as the Inquisitor and we had a characterful Mephistopheles from Kevin Conners.  I also enjoyed Igor Tsarkov’s implacable Faust, a voice of genuine depth of tone that I would certainly like to hear again.

Kevin Conners, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Kevin Conners, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

Vladimir Jurowski gave us a colourful romp through the score alive to its every nuance.  He was rewarded with playing of outstanding quality from the Staatsorchester, every section distinguishing itself with playing of amplitude and easy virtuosity.  His was a rhythmically incisive reading yet he also gave us some deep languor such as when Renata tries to seduce Ruprecht.  Yes, there were times where I wish he’d pushed things forward a bit and perhaps he could have given the singers a bit more space to get their lines across but so much of that is due to the thickness of the orchestration.  What is unquestionable is Jurowski and the orchestra’s absolute command of the score and the way the music seemed to be completely connected to the stage pictures.

Svetlana Sozdateleva, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Svetlana Sozdateleva, Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

This was one of those evenings of total theatre where we were given a production that completely lived with the music and an inseparable union of music and visuals.  Yes, some of the singing struggled to be heard but this was such a visceral experience with dramatically highly persuasive performances, extremely assured handling of the large forces and stage pictures that seemed completely married to the music that one left the theatre absolutely thrilled.  Tonight’s performance was broadcast on the Staatsoper’s website and I very much hope that it has been recorded for posterity.  This is a major contribution to the history of The Fiery Angel on stage and one that deserves to be widely seen and discussed.  It is, without doubt, an incredible and total piece of music theatre.


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