Opera in five acts (1927; World premiere 1954)

The year is 1534. Ruprecht spends the night in a run-down inn. Suddenly he hears cries of fear from the next room, in which it seems a woman is in danger. He breaks down the connecting door to help her and comes face to face with a stunningly beautiful woman – who is alone. She implores him to protect her and tells him her extraordinary story: Her name, she says, is Renata, and ever since she was a child she had an intimate relationship with a fiery angel called Madiel, but she has lost him and has been looking for him, constantly pursued by demons. Something about this strange woman moves Ruprecht. He becomes her protector and more and more he falls deeply in love with her, but she only takes advantage of him. When he is seriously injured, she cares apparently loving for him, but then she enters a convent. Soon after her arrival strange things start to happen there. The abbess summons an inquisitor, but his exorcism spirals completely out of control. In the end the inquisitor sentences Renata to be burned at the stake.

Sergei Prokofiev was able to leave Russia, which was reeling under civil war, in 1918, and tried to make a name for himself in New York. There he came across Valery Bryusov’s symbolist novel The Fiery Angel and sensed that the unsettling tale in which madness and reality, and sorcery and parlour tricks remain indistinguishable would make a good subject for an opera. He adapted the novel as a libretto himself, making full use of the opportunity to create orgiastic, madness-evoking and therefore extremely unconventional music. The text plays with the possibility that magic exists, though it hardly ever visibly occurs. Prokofiev has placed all the magic in his composition. The fiery angel Madiel never appears: it is never established whether he exists or was just a hallucination. He is identifiable only in his own particular musical theme. The opera ends in excess: the initially tranquil convent theme builds to an inferno, both on stage and in the score, in which the mania motif previously associated only with Renata spreads to almost everyone else. The enthusiastic Prokofiev initially made rapid progress on the work and in 1920 he presented excerpts of it to the director of the Metropolitan Opera. However, even these small snippets were enough to make the director doubt whether the project could be staged. As Prokofiev’s hopes of a career in America began to fade he put The Fiery Angel to one side. It was not until 1927 that he completed the score, but then he could find no theatre willing to produce it and used parts of the opera for his Symphony in C minor. In 1936 he returned to the now Stalinist Soviet Union where performance of this provocative work was out of the question. One year after his death in 1953 a French-language version premiered in Paris, but The Fiery Angel remain a rarely performed work on international opera stages.

In March 2020 we were forced to abandon rehearsals for this production owing to the restrictions introduced to contain the corona pandemic. However, we are pleased to be able to resume our work in 2021 and present this production that was originally planned for last season.

© Theater an der Wien





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Bo Skovhus