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Prokofiev's Fiery, Surreal 'Angel' Rises in San Francisco

October 24, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SAN FRANCISCO — The stage, a dark eerie box, is haunted, quite literally, by a silent horde of virtually naked white demons who freeze, scramble, crawl, stalk, contort, tumble, stretch, climb the dank walls and gently mock the feeble mortals in distress.

The feeble mortals include a strong-voiced maiden experiencing the terminal throes of sexual hysteria, a masochistic knight who wants to possess her, a generous representation of mystics and religious fanatics, one sadistic alchemist, a devil in disguise who amuses himself by devouring a tavern lad, and, oh yes, a chorus of nuns who strip off their habits in a climactic outburst of orgiastic frenzy.

Opera is such a delicate art.

In case you couldn't tell, the bill at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday was not "La Boheme." It was Sergei Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel," a.k.a. "Ognenniy angel," a strange and startling, daring and ultimately poignant evocation of 16th-Century Germany as filtered through the sensibilities of modernist Russia, ca. 1925.

Los Angeles saw a fascinating, boldly primitive facsimile of the forbidding opus at the Music Center in 1987, staged by Andrei Serban and designed by Robert Israel. San Francisco chose a safer, arguably more authentic version, borrowing a universally applauded and much traveled production from the Maryinsky Theater, a.k.a. Kirov, in St. Petersburg, a.k.a. Leningrad.

This "Fiery Angel," staged by the progressive British director David Freeman amid sparse surrealist decors by David Roger, was mounted at the Maryinsky in 1991. It was subsequently sent to Covent Garden in London and, as part of a historic Kirov tour, to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It has been recorded for a doubtlessly grateful posterity on videotape as well as compact discs.

One can argue about the sustaining qualities of Prokofiev's massive score--sometimes cataclysmic in its brute force, sometimes dazzling in its sardonic wit, occasionally compelling in its muted lyricism and, one fears, frequently muddled in its expressive convolutions. But it would be difficult to argue about the impact of Freeman's sensitive theatrical vision.

The dramatic inspirations are wild, to be sure, and the interpretive gestures are drastic. However, they never distort, much less contradict, the basic musical impulse. In contemporary opera production, that is a very big, very crucial but.

It should be noted that the basic musical impulses were not given optimal weight or focus on this occasion. "The Fiery Angel" has been a favored showpiece for Valery Gergiev from the start, and, according to all reports, the mighty Russian maestro brings virtually manic brio to this forbidding challenge. Unfortunately, Gergiev had to attend to some urgent directorial business in St. Petersburg on Friday, and he yielded his place on the San Francisco podium to a valiant Kirov associate, Alexander Polianichko.

The associate, making a difficult debut in operatic America, held everything together with informed competence, even though he could do little to ignite hand-me-down sparks. The dynamic discourse was cautious. The energy level, especially at the outset, was low. The emotional violence was muted.

Under the circumstances, sight tended to overpower sound. And those omnipresent demons--superbly enacted by a team of acrobatic mimes from St. Petersburg--tended to draw undue attention from the poor protagonists who had to act primarily with their voices. The balances in modern musical theater are precarious.

The central role of Renata is relentlessly demanding. The vocal line is extraordinarily long and loud, high and tough. Despite some technical problems, Marilyn Zschau made a tour de force of the demented heroine in the Los Angeles production seven years ago. Galina Gorchakova, miscast last year as Puccini's Butterfly at the Music Center, triumphed in San Francisco as a very different Renata.

Hysteria is not her forte. With Freeman's obvious support, she stressed an overriding degree of misplaced innocence throughout, focusing numb distraction rather than raging passion. The essential understatement created sympathy in this context, and the soprano sang the impossible music with abiding purity, unflinching stamina and point.

Sergei Leiferkus complemented her as an almost heroic, attractively compulsive Ruprecht. Konstantin Pluzhnikov introduced a compellingly sly and crusty Mephistopheles, and, replacing an indisposed colleague, doubled ably as the blustery Agrippa von Nettesheim. Larissa Diadkova upheld the sacred Russian tradition of the gallon-jug contralto nobly as the Sorceress and Mother Superior. Bulat Minzhilkiev boomed nicely as the mean Inquisitor.

The American contingent held its own honorably in secondary assignments. Scott Wilde served as an exceptionally sonorous Peasant, Larry Henderson as an unusually sympathetic Heinrich and Donna Petersen as an uncommonly endearing Landlady.

It was, for once, a stimulating night at the opera.

* "The Fiery Angel" presented at the War Memorial Opera House, 199 Grove St. (at Van Ness), San Francisco. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Nov. 1, 5 and 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets $8 (standing room) to $120. Information: (415) 864-3330.

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