Why is Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel not better-known? It has a gorgeous score, a complex and tragic love story, and generous doses of erotics, psychology and the occult. What more does one look for in a 20th-century opera? Granted, it’s a dark work mingling sexual and religious themes, which was only performed on stage in 1955, after Prokofiev’s death. But it is not perhaps as unconventional as it might seem: based on the Symbolist novel by Valery Bryusov, the story has at its roots a love triangle between Renata, a troubled young woman, Ruprecht, a traveller (or knight errant), and the elusive angel of the title.

When Ruprecht first meets her, Renata is obsessed – and possibly possessed – by angelic and demonic forces. When she was a child, an angel, Madiel, came to her in visions, but he disappeared in anger when she came of age and expressed her sexual desire for him. She then met Count Heinrich, believing he is the angel reincarnated, and fell in love – but he would not admit he was her angel, and now the Count has vanished in turn, leaving her desperately seeking him. Renata’s distress and passion seem to be contagious, and even as he is recruited to help her on her quest, Ruprecht falls hopelessly in love with her. The love triangle grows in bitterness and violence, a game of cat and mouse that ends with Ruprecht watching helplessly as Renata enters a convent, only to be subjected to a brutal exorcism and burned at the stake. 

The story is rich in the erotic and symbolic, the eerie and ambiguous. Radical director Calixto Bieito extracts its potential brilliantly, setting the stage in closeted 1950s society, complete with knitwear, mahogany and patriarchal attitudes towards madness and female desire, transposed from the Middle Ages to a chillingly convincing modernity. Rebecca Ringst’s set, a slowly rotating tower of wooden boxes and steel gridding, is tremendously effective, the changes swiftly executed so you’re never sure what or who will appear in the boxes. The effect is unnerving, and ties in neatly with the opera’s preoccupation with watching and being watched: within the story, by supernatural spirits, or onstage by unnamed characters. The characters are constantly trapped and out of sync, seeking and missing each other in this changeable labyrinth – a clever echo of the opera’s emotional themes.

Bieito’s is, without a doubt, an ambitious and unusual staging, featuring psychotropic drugs, a flaming bicycle and, at one point, two live dogs onstage – which the audience loved but which, perhaps, distracted from the scene. But apart from these flourishes, it is really quite restrained for Regieoper. Darkness reigns over the production, as does the not-quite-seen and the unknown: the opera opens in pitch black, with only Renata’s bicycle lamp glowing on. In their most effective moments, Sarah Derendinger’s short films projected over the stage add an uncanny glimmer to the proceedings, all eyes and fur and claws, never quite resolving into something recognisable. Much in the same way, modern themes of medical abuse and child molestation tremble just beyond the audience’s grasp. Altogether, the production has an unusually strong visual and thematic coherence, with notions of shifting and misalignment mirroring the quick shifts in the musical universe. 

And what a universe it is. From the sharp brass of the overture to the eerie string interlude announcing “the inquisitors are on the prowl”, Prokofiev’s is a dense and rich instrumental background, upon which are stitched moments of tremendous musical tenderness (Renata singing “You saved me from them” to Ruprecht, or “Forgive me, Madiel”). Some of the vocal interludes compress all the emotional intensity of a 19th-century aria into a few lines; at other times, the voices play an almost rhythmic role, like the soothsayer chanting words until they seem to have no meaning. The music has a tremendous energy, surging forward under Gianandrea Noseda’s baton, shapeshifting from one moment to the next and leaving us spellbound.  

Meanwhile, the two leads were remarkable for their vocal as well as acting prowess. Ausrine Stundyte was stunning as Renata, unafraid to push her voice to its limits and explore every nuance of her role, triumphantly handling the Wagnerian demands of the score as well as those of the emotionally intense staging. Her lush, rounded sound got a chance to unfold in all its beauty as the story progresses, growing in warmth and loveliness even as her character approached her brutal demise. Across from her, Leigh Melrose, also did tremendous work as Ruprecht, alternating between brooding intensity and clutching earnestness, consumed to the point of masochism by his hopeless passion. Physically and musically, the pair gave a very convincing interpretation of this complex and tormented relationship. Although his part doesn’t provide as many melodic moments as Renata’s, Ruprecht does get possibly the best line of Prokofiev’s beautiful libretto – “My entire soul is full of smoke, like in an explosion.”

Amongst the smaller parts, Agnieszka Rehlis stood out as the soothsayer, pushing her powerful mezzo voice into the realm of the contralto to great effect. 

A powerful production and performance, which investigates the psychological underpinnings of the story sensitively, without either dismissing its narratively ambitious elements (the demons, the crowd of possessed nuns) or tipping into Regieoper self-parody – a remarkable achievement. See it if you can.