For an opera so comprehensively unhinged as Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, Mariusz Treliński’s new production, which opened earlier in the year at his home base in Warsaw and has now arrived at the Aix Festival, is surprisingly coherent. It's madcap, bizarre, fragmentary, full of the unexpected – but utterly entrancing, with a dramatic thread that grips you and doesn’t let go.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata) © Pascal Victor | artcompress
Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata)
© Pascal Victor | artcompress

The Fiery Angel started life as a straightforward enough love triangle incident in the life of the novelist Valery Bryusov. From that starting point, the imagination of Bryusov's symbolist novel, Prokofiev's libretto and now Treliński have fashioned a very different love triangle: one in which the three participants are consumed by obsession and spiral inexorably to destruction. Since childhood, Renata has been obsessed with “Madiel”, the angelic being who she believes to have taken human form in the shape of Heinrich. When Ruprecht meets Renata, his initial character as damsel-saving knight errant rapidly metamorphoses into an obsession with her. Heinrich – his character glimpsed more obscurely – is obsessed with the evil spirits that he believes inhabit Renata.

The action shifts seamlessly between reality, imagination and drug-induced fantasy. Renata’s mood swings are extreme, and Prokofiev’s music is constantly in motion to match them: he explores the full range of orchestral colours and moods: string sweep rapture as Renata imagines Madiel, calm in Ruprecht’s initial role as protector, explosive brass-laden violence when Ruprecht falls only just short of raping Renata, percussion and low woodwind-fuelled Hollywood horror drama when their drugged imagination conjures up the knocking of demons on their hotel room wall – and many more. Somehow, in all this, Kazushi Ono found a steady hand to keep the orchestra under control and deliver a continuous flow of excitement, bringing the orchestra to gigantic climaxes at the end of each half.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata), Scott Hendricks (Ruprecht) and multiple Agrippas © Pascal Victor | artcompress
Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata), Scott Hendricks (Ruprecht) and multiple Agrippas
© Pascal Victor | artcompress

To frame all this, set designer Boris Kludička creates a giant rectilinear structure, allowing Treliński to make creative use of the space to produce the bedroom, bathroom and bar of the dodgy hotel in which travelling salesman Ruprecht encounters Renata and the flophouse in Cologne, where they travel in search of Ruprecht. We are continually disturbed by general weirdness – the most striking being the blue-sequined drag queen, the most random being the three identical country-and-western guitarists, the most dramatically powerful being the multiple incarnations of the “mage and philosopher” Agrippa von Nettesheim, not forgetting the dwarf version of Ruprecht who appears in the comic relief episode with Faust and Mephistopheles. Treliński continually pulls illusionist tricks on us: our eye is distracted to one end of the stage, only for a key character to be there on stage and start singing, having apparently materialised out of nowhere.

Scott Hendricks (Ruprecht), Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata) © Pascal Victor | artcompress
Scott Hendricks (Ruprecht), Aušrinė Stundytė (Renata)
© Pascal Victor | artcompress

Vocal performances were let down by this production’s Achilles heel: often, the singers were insufficiently audible above the brilliance of the orchestra. A local journalist explained to me that the Grand Théâtre de Provence usually has an acoustic shell which reflects the singers’ voices forward: that shell had been removed to make way for the giant metal frame on which the scenery was created. Opera direction is inevitably full of compromises, but I would suggest that this was a misjudgement.

Setting aside these audibility problems, the cast delivered strong singing/acting performances. As Renata, Aušrinė Stundytė has a punishingly tough role, on stage for most of the opera and continually shifting vocal register and timbre to match her character’s violent mood swings: she accomplished these with confidence. She was well supported by the equally confident and versatile baritone of Scott Hendricks as Ruprecht and the gravelly bass of Krzysztof Bączyk as Heinrich (metamorphosing into Faust and the Inquisitor). Pavlo Tolstoy was chillingly nasty as the drug-pusher Glock, and the surprise packet of the evening was Andrei Popov, whose voice ran rings around the tricky interventions of Agrippa and then blew us away with his entry as Mephistopheles: this is yet another opera where the devil gets the best lines.

It’s sad to reflect on the fact that The Fiery Angel was never performed in Prokofiev’s lifetime. The music uses the instruments of a standard symphony orchestra, but it’s astoundingly modern for the time it was written, abounding in complexity and innovation in the different soundscapes it conjures from those instruments. The narrative may be simple at its core, but it's turned into an intoxicating mix of the mundane, the occult, the supernatural and extreme emotions, brought superbly to life by Treliński’s theatricality and Ono’s masterly command of the orchestra. This production has to be seen: it’s a few decibels of voice level short of a masterpiece.