Before the Music Center Opera splashed its bold and brash production of "The Fiery Angel" across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday, Prokofiev's opera had been ventured only twice in America. Those productions, at the New York City Center and in Chicago, took place in the distant '60s.
It isn't difficult to understand why this magnum opus has languished in neglect. The sprawling score, an arduous challenge for all concerned, is uncompromisingly provocative, intricate, ponderous, grandiose. When the inherent emotions become most gnarled, it becomes daringly dissonant. The sonic language seems progressive, even for the post-Romantic '20s.
Prokofiev's libretto, based on a novel by Valery Bryusov, presents an even more daunting challenge. It is a murky melange of religious mysticism and anti-mysticism, an arcane quasi-Medieval tale of obsession and possession, a thorny semi-psychosexual treatise on matters supernatural and philosophical.
The tone fluctuates, moreover, from the heroic to the trivial to the turgid to the comic to the satirical to the tragic.
Before the curtain falls, we see a martyred heroine vacillating between ecstatic visions and agonizing tortures. We see diabolical pacts, fierce exorcisms and cruel inquisitions. We even see hysterical nuns tear off their sacred habits as they writhe climactically in topless demonic frenzy.
"The Fiery Angel" may not be the ideal opera for a prim audience that thinks "La Boheme" is the last word in lyric poignancy. It may not be the perfect vehicle to celebrate the arrival of the Pope in our midst. But it does offer welcome stimulation for anyone interested in a little operatic exotica.
There are obvious flaws in the work. The inconsistencies of narrative focus tend to alienate, just as the overlapping plot convolutions tend to confuse. The vocal lines, parlando utterances one moment and expansive melodies the next, do not invariably sound idiomatic. In his quest to tell us so much about so many things on so many levels, Prokofiev probably overextended his own inventions.
For all its compression and obfuscation, however, "The Fiery Angel" remains a tough and compelling example of modern musical theater. The orchestral interludes, some of which Prokofiev recycled in his Third Symphony, evoke mood and manner with brilliant, churning precision. The choral passages, though unreasonably exacting, create waves of contrapuntal insinuation. The central roles, despite their vocal quirks, are delineated in broad, illuminating strokes.
The Music Center production, which will eventually move on to the London Coliseum and the Geneva Opera, treats Prokofiev with appropriately brutal, loving care.
The most striking element turns out to be the scenic design. Robert Israel has interpreted the piece as cool surrealistic nightmare. He gives us chaste images of a classicism gone awry--white architectural vistas besmirched with ominous black scribbles, panoramic angles tossed alarmingly off kilter. Specifics of time, place and motive are conveyed through Brechtian conventions, stark functional symbols and wondrous bizarre props.
Andrei Serban imposes strict stylization upon his actors within this brilliant, eminently disturbing visual context. The director likes to make the picturesque grotesque. Here, the potential perversions are useful. He savors primitive contrasts and toys with the black humor that invariably underscores--or contradicts--the inherent pathos. Most important, perhaps, he respects the dynamic rhythm of the score.
Under the circumstances, one might have expected Lawrence Foster to stress primitivism uber Alles in the pit. That, however, would have been too easy, and perhaps too vulgar.
Although the conductor rouses his excellent orchestra for the inevitable bolts of macabre impact, he strives wherever possible for clarity of texture, subtlety of nuance, even for Mozartean grace. He enhances theatrical tensions in the process.
Marilyn Zschau sings the central role of Renata, a nearly impossible cross between Elektra, Isolde and Pierrot Lunaire. She overcomes the vocal and physical hurdles with stamina and force. She shrinks neither from the high tessitura nor from the histrionic outrages. She looks attractive and executes Serban's choreography with diligence. She is always resourceful and authoritative.
Somehow, alas, it isn't enough. One wishes she could muster more light and shade, in her singing as well as her acting. One longs for cleaner, better focused diction. One looks in vain for a sense total abandon, for ethereal escape, for hypnotic attraction. One also worries about the strain this undertaking may impose on a big, bright, somewhat metallic voice that already tends to wobble under pressure.
The supporting cast is strong.