It is a shame that Sergei Prokofiev never lived to see his dramatic, viscerally occult opera The Fiery Angel performed because the supernatural bloody tale and chromatically writhing music packs an immense operatic punch. It was written while he was struggling to maintain popularity in America, and due to the subject matter, simply impossible to be performed in Stalin’s Russia he returned to in 1936. Some of the music found its way into his Third Symphony, but the work languished in a drawer until its rediscovery in 1953. A single semi-staged performance, sung in Russian with the forces of Scottish Opera augmented by players and singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, promised a rare treat for us in Glasgow. Mikhail Agrest conducted an international cast from Russia, Azerbaijan and Poland in this spine-chilling masterpiece.

Mikhail Agrest in rehearsal © Julie Howden
Mikhail Agrest in rehearsal
© Julie Howden

The plot centres around Renata, obsessed by Madiel, an angel she saw as a girl, but as she grew older she started to make sexual demands, which were rejected. She later fell in love with Count Heinrich, as she was she convinced that he was the angel come to earth, but he left without warning. It is dangerously erotic territory for knight errant Ruprecht to stumble upon at a roadside inn at the start of the opera as he calms a terrified and fragile Renata who is having violent hallucinations. The opera is a tense love triangle between Renata, Ruprecht and the unseen Heinrich by way of sorcery, magic and, in a terrifying climax to the second act, a visit to a philosopher with singing skeletons and later, a duel. It is no wonder that Renata becomes progressively and contagiously unhinged, eventually seeking peace in a nunnery. An inquisitor exorcises the nuns, who have become possessed, and condemns Renata to be burnt at the stake.

Barefoot Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva’s full voice completely captured the central role of Renata, an almost continuous mad scene. Clad in a simple white dress with only a single chair as a prop, she rarely left the stage in a physically demanding performance of a highly disturbed individual, battling with her demons and dealing with Ruprecht’s advances, unsympathetic landladies and some very eerie and dramatic knockings in the walls. She managed to convey a tender vulnerability underneath all her raging, a character clearly beyond help. Azerbaijani baritone Evez Abdulla was a tremendously robust Ruprecht, balancing concern and desire for Renata. With the augmented orchestra on stage behind them only letting up occasionally, the pair did well in their extended conversations to rise above the general melee in a sturdy central partnership that this opera absolutely demands.

Agnieszka Rehlis, Svetlana Sozdateleva and Evez Abdulla in rehearsal © Julie Howden
Agnieszka Rehlis, Svetlana Sozdateleva and Evez Abdulla in rehearsal
© Julie Howden

A highly charged visit by Ruprecht to philosopher Agrippa von Nettesheim, sung by tenor Dimitry Golovnin, full-voiced in his white coat and with his sinister chorus of skeletons, had the orchestra and singers pinning us to our seats by a wall of noise. Later, as welcome light relief, Luke Sinclair’s playful Mephistopheles, in a grey suit with scarlet tie and socks, and Jerome Knox’s Faust wandered in for a drink playing cannibalistic games with a boy, Sinclair slyly grinning as he licked up the last remains on a meat tray with enthusiastic relish.

In the calm before the storm, soft violas and cellos introduced us to the convent, as Renata pleaded her case with Maria Maksakova’s commanding Abbess, in a decidedly un-habit like split dress. The Conservatoire’s bright chorus of nuns augmented the forces for this final scene joined by a convincing semi-chorus of six possessed nuns at the front of the stage. As Alexei Tanovitski’s gruff Inquisitor tried to calm the hysteria following more knocks on the wall, the nuns’ singing became ever more frenzied until finally Renata received her sentence as a percussionist ascended a stepladder behind the chorus to strike an enormous tubular bell. Sozdateleva was left centre stage, arms aloft in ecstatic martyrdom awaiting her fiery fate.

Concert performances of opera need imagination from all, and with singers performing from memory, director Max Hoehn used the stage and balconies in the Hall to full extent, the intense storytelling from Sozdateleva and Abdulla vivid and compelling. Agrest and the orchestra gave a muscular account of this powerful score, a credit to the 26 Conservatoire players sitting alongside Scottish Opera regulars.

The Fiery Angel, with its cast of many, was perfect for Scottish Opera to put on in partnership with the Conservatoire allowing the casting of enormous central roles, impossible for young voices. The students ably took seven smaller parts, skeletons, neighbours and all those deranged nuns trained by Chorus Master Philip White for this production, his first as Head of Opera at RCS. This was Scottish Opera's first Fiery Angel, a splendid Sunday afternoon event which left us with our ears ringing.