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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Fiery Angel, Op. 37 (1919-27)
Libretto by Sergei Prokofiev (after the Valery Bryusov novel of the same name)
Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Alejo Pérez
rec. 23 May, 2019 at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Italy
Picture format: HD 16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-MA 5.1
Sung in Russian; Subtitles: English, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in stereo
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0113V [2:12:58]

Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel was never staged in the composer's lifetime. Various reasons have been given for this, including that the work was outlandish and simply blasphemous, leaving opera companies little choice but to avoid a possible backlash from producing it. Yet that claim doesn't quite explain the fact that Prokofiev had a contract through Bruno Walter with the Städtische Oper Berlin to have the opera produced in the 1927-28 season, but he finished the orchestration too late to meet the deadline. Others have pointed out that the composer had always had bad luck with his operas and that this was just another example. There may be some truth to that view, but Prokofiev was already well known, with many of his compositions regularly performed. Moreover, in the realm of opera The Love for Three Oranges had already been staged, The Gambler would soon be and his four later operas all achieved performance in his lifetime.

A far more likely an explanation for The Fiery Angel's initial neglect has recently come to light: the composer himself had developed serious doubts about the opera's religious aspects. In 1924 Prokofiev turned to the Christian Science religion whose teachings were greatly at odds with the medieval view of religion depicted in The Fiery Angel. Set in the 16th century, it features typical Christian practices of the day and focuses rather lopsidedly on satanic elements within its story, such as employing Mephistopheles as a character as well as other evil spirits, and using a spectacular and utterly hysterical scene of exorcism. In fact, Prokofiev reportedly considered destroying the manuscript before it was completed, but his wife, Lina, convinced him to continue on with it to the end. He did seek to get the work staged after he finished it, but it seems he gradually lost enthusiasm over the work. Why else would Prokofiev leave the manuscript behind when he departed France? Luckily, musicologist Hans Swarsensky discovered it in the basement of a Paris publishing house a quarter century later.

In any event, the opera is a masterpiece. Some would call it a flawed masterpiece because of its puzzling libretto, wherein finding a consistent interpretation of its seemingly contradictory and confused events has proven a challenge to many musicologists and opera mavens. The abundant symbolism in this imaginative production by Emma Dante will throw fuel on that fire to be sure—but then it just might clear the skies, at least for some of us. Visually it's an excellent production in just about every way and absolutely fascinating to watch, well served by fine performances, which I'll get to shortly.

The story of The Fiery Angel concerns Renata, a young woman who is either an eccentric Christian mystic or possessed by the devil—or maybe mentally unbalanced and nothing more. The knight Ruprecht befriends her in an inn during and in the aftermath of one of her spells, wherein she is supposedly harassed by an evil spirit. He wants to become her lover, but she rejects him explaining her background of obsession with the fiery angel called Madiel who began appearing to her at age eight and on into her teenage years. At sixteen she wanted their relationship to turn carnal, but he abandoned her in anger. Renata tells Ruprecht she had found the human incarnation of Madiel in Count Heinrich, with whom she lived for a year at his castle. But Heinrich abandoned her too. Renata convinces Ruprecht to go with her to Cologne to find Heinrich, and he agrees. After arriving there, Renata is angered by Heinrich's rejection of her and asks Ruprecht to challenge Heinrich to a duel and kill him. But the fickle Renata changes her mind at the last minute and forbids Ruprecht to harm Heinrich, leaving Ruprecht to fight a duel he can't win. He is thus seriously wounded in the contest but eventually recovers and asks Renata to marry him. He is rejected again. Renata then becomes a novice nun at a monastery, where the other nuns hold her in high regard. But an evil presence seems to accompany her and brings havoc to her and the other nuns. The Inquisitor comes and performs an exorcism, and in the end determines Sister Renata is guilty of carnal intercourse with the devil and condemns her to be burned at the stake.

Stage director Emma Dante explains in an interview in the album booklet that the angel that Renata sees is the devil. In her production of the opera Ms. Dante has the angel portrayed by a breakdancer who uses his legs, not wings, to go about his work. Like other breakdancers, he's often on his hands flipping over or kicking his legs into the air. Ms. Dante further explains the opera's setting is not related to a time period but to “a state of mind.” Well, yes, but some of the costuming places the opera in the late 18th century and the costumes of Mephistopheles and Faust are partly modern looking, if weird. Moreover, the atmosphere, including the scenery, strongly evokes a time from a dark age of centuries past.

The opening scene is supposed to take place in an inn, but Ms. Dante explains the sets are designed after the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, where underground open vaults reveal skeletons as their inhabitants. (“Capuchins” refers to a branch of the religious order of Franciscan priests in the Catholic Church). It's an odd substitution but it fits her concept of the work. In this production there are mummified-like people occupying the vaults and in front of them on stage a dancer representing the angel/evil spirit regularly harasses Renata and at times Ruprecht. Sometimes the people in the vaults come out onto stage. In the séance scene they even restrain an overwrought Ruprecht from attacking the medium. Act II features a background of books on shelves, as if in some quaint library. The remainder of the opera carries the atmosphere and much of the appearance of the Capuchins' Catacombs. Incidentally, Ms. Dante precedes each act except the First with a brief scene, a vignette of sorts, that forecasts aspects of what is to come.

The final act (Act V) features at center stage a crucifix whose corpus is a female, which suggests one way this opera is to be interpreted: Renata is a sincere, charismatic figure who because of her liberated status and sexual history becomes a threat to the male dominated world. She always garners attention, whether from Ruprecht or from Count Heinrich or from the nuns in the convent, and is thus a great symbol of female power. Her visions are hallucinations caused by guilt over her behavior and progressive views, and these views and behavior put her at odds with the Church superiors and eventually bring on her demise. This is not a new interpretation, but here it is presented quite convincingly. Of course, this opera has other interpretations: some see it as a portrayal of the church's excesses (the plentiful superstition, Renata's hysteria, the Inquisitor's fanatical righteousness,) being cathartically purged in order to strengthen and preserve the good within itself. Another interpretation sees Renata simply as a mentally disturbed woman who is greatly misunderstood in this harsh unforgiving society. There are many other possible interpretations of this opera of course, including viewing it as a black comedy.

As for the performances by the singers, Polish soprano Ewa Vesin has the unenviable task of taking on the role of Renata, considered one of the most challenging in the repertory. The vocal range, screeching, rapid repetitions of words and phrases, and mad scenes are hugely taxing. In her first appearance, about a minute into the opera, she enters with a mad scene, where she sings splendidly and with dramatic skills that effectively capture Renata's fanatical demeanor, showing both abject fear and vulnerability. As she goes on to explain her background to Ruprecht, she is passionate and warm, but can turn cold and detached. Here and throughout the opera she portrays Renata more convincingly than any other soprano I've encountered on video and CD. English baritone Leigh Melrose makes an excellent Ruprecht. He is utterly persuasive in a role that is also difficult, especially dramatically, as he portrays a dedicated knight who, despite Renata's constant rejections of him, remains hopeful of winning her over and thus carries out her every demand.

The characters Vesin and Melrose portray heavily dominate the action in the opera, but there are several very excellent singers in the minor roles. Russian mezzo Mairam Sokolova as the Fortune Teller (and Mother Superior in the last act) is excellent in the séance scene. Ukrainian tenor Maxim Paster convincingly portrays a menacing, domineering Mephistopheles, brilliantly playing up his mocking sense of humor. Croatian bass Goran Jurić as the Inquisitor is most imposing and his deep, rich voice is perfect for the role. All in all, the cast is excellent and the chorus sings well, though in the last act those singing as the nuns, sound somewhat underpowered. The dancers perform brilliantly throughout the opera as well.

Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez takes a slightly different approach in conducting this opera from the others on record. Though his tempos tend to be well judged and in the moderate range, his orchestral textures are clearer than I've ever heard before in this opera. Indeed, he elucidates passages where there are many competing lines from among the singers, chorus and orchestra, most notably in the last act. You hear so much more of Prokofiev's score on this recording than you will in any other. He also draws a fine, vital performance from the Rome Opera House Orchestra whose style tilts more toward finesse rather than grit, and transparency rather than muscle. Yet they play with plenty of power and weight when necessary.

Charles Bruck (Ades and other labels) was the first to record this opera, and his 1954 recording in mono is excellent, despite mediocre sound, but was sung in French. Neeme Järvi (DG) and Valery Gergiev (Philips CD and Arthaus Musik DVD) are also very convincing. But Gergiev's 1993 video technology, which features a 4:3 aspect ratio, can't compare with Naxos's, which is state of the art in its high definition, camera work, and vivid colors. Moreover, the sound reproduction on the Naxos is also far better than Gergiev's and has the edge over Järvi's fine 1991 DG engineering as well. In addition, as mentioned above, not only is Ewa Vesin the best Renata, but her fellow cast members are at least as good the competition's. Thus, the choice is simple: go for the Naxos. I must say that I love this opera and this recording is now clearly my first choice. Highest recommendations!
Robert Cummings

Renata - Ewa Vesin; Ruprecht - Leigh Melrose; The Landlady - Anna Victorova; Fortune-teller/Mother Superior - Mairam Sokolova; Agrippa of Nettesheim - Sergey Radchenko; Johann Faust/The Servant - Andrii Ganchuk; Mephistopheles - Maxim Paster; The Inquisitor - Goran Jurić; Jacob Glock - Domingo Pellicola; Mathias Wiessman - Petr Sokolov
Stage Director, Designers and Choreographer
Emma Dante, stage director
Carmine Maringola, set designer
Vanessa Sannino, costume designer
Cristian Zucaro, lighting designer
Manuela Lo Sicco, choreographer

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