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September 13, 1987|HARLOW ROBINSON | Robinson is the author of "Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography," published recently by Viking Press

Bearing enough black magic, violence and sex for several sequels to "The Devils," "The Fiery Angel" flies into town this week.

Its arrival may come as a shock to those who know Sergei Prokofiev as the precocious, ironic "bad boy of Russian music." For, in this brooding, demonic and oddly neglected opera, the sunny, sardonic creator of such tuneful crowd-pleasers as the "Lt. Kije" Suite, the "Classical" Symphony and "Cinderella" displays his dark side.

It's a Freudian dream come true.

The new Los Angeles Music Center Opera production is also a historic occasion: a West Coast premiere. In fact, this appears to be only the third United States staging of Prokofiev's ill-fated masterpiece manque , which received its American premiere at New York City Opera in 1965, and was mounted in Chicago the following year.

Assembled in collaboration with English National Opera and the Geneva Opera and staged by Andrei Serban, the Music Center production, part of the Los Angeles Festival, opens a four-performance run on Wednesday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It will be sung in an English translation by Edward Downes.

Amid the theological turbulence of 16th-Century Germany, "The Fiery Angel" spins a tale of religious hysteria and libidinous excess so lurid as to make "Tosca" seem like "Little Bo Peep."

There's a bit of everything: exorcism, mysticism, magic tricks and more sinister varieties of occultism, a sadomasochistic menage a trois, a psychotic heroine who careens between nymphomania and divine abstinence, a brutal Inquisition. There are cameo appearances by the occult philosopher Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Faust and Mephistopheles.

"Peter and the Wolf" it's not.

Serban, who has also staged Prokofiev's "Love for Three Oranges" in Geneva, is taken with "The Fiery Angel." He calls it "a very mysterious and amazing piece" and "my favorite among all operas."

Even Serban admits, however, that the libretto, in five acts and seven vivid scenes, is often "confusing for an audience. It has the logic of a collage: It's not something that goes from point A to B to C.

"And the opera is very ambiguous--although intentionally. We're not always sure if we should take it as a parody of religion, or as serious commentary."

If the dramatic success of "The Fiery Angel" is a matter of debate, its musical significance is not. The opera contains some of the most complex material Prokofiev (1891-1953) ever wrote, either for symphonic orchestra or for the operatic stage.

And that is saying something for a man who despite repeated failures insisted upon thinking of himself as an operatic composer, completing seven operas (including "The Gambler," "Love for Three Oranges" and "War and Peace") over a 40-year period.

Of particular interest is the fierce and athletic role of the troubled heroine Renata. The dramatic soprano part will be sung here by Marilyn Zschau.

According to Serban, Renata is a fascinating character precisely because she is ambiguous.

"One is never sure if she is an agent of the devil or of God," the director says. "She is searching for God in a world in which all logic is broken--the world of Mephistopheles. And she was living in a state of total chaos, like we are today."

Serban's contagious enthusiasm leads, of course, to an awkward but inevitable question. Why has the "The Fiery Angel" been produced so rarely?

"Actually," Serban replied without hesitation, "I think the opera's difficult history is a perfect reflection of its content. It's haunted."

Although Prokofiev loved to brag how quickly he could toss off new opus numbers, it took him an extraordinarily long time--eight years, from 1919 to 1927--to finish this one. And after all that, Bruno Walter reneged on his pledge to produce in Berlin.

Nor was Prokofiev able in his own lifetime to persuade any other American, European or Soviet opera house to mount his magnum opus. Partly out of frustration, he decided to recycle and reassemble large chunks of the music from the opera in his raucous Third Symphony, completed in 1928. That the music from "The Fiery Angel" is still best known in this form testifies to the opera's symphonic conception and substance.

Several incomplete concert versions were given in Europe during Prokofiev's lifetime. The first, conducted in 1928 in Paris by his longtime friend and colleague, Serge Koussevitsky, earned no better than a tepid critical response. (The reigning Stravinsky-Diaghilev clique was then dismissing opera as passe.) The Metropolitan Opera briefly expressed interest, but eventually rejected "The Fiery Angel" as beyond its resources.

When the stage premiere finally came in Venice in 1955, Prokofiev had been dead for two years.

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