The odds are that a cast of nuns in an opera means that the evening will end badly. Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel culminates in a scene in which the inhabitants of a convent are overcome by demons, emanating from the visions of the troubled Renata. This is one of the few sections of the opera that remain as the composer envisaged it in the staging at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, revived after a summer break following its launch in June.

Svetlana Sozdateleva (Renata), Susan Maclean (Äbtissin) © Hans Jörg Michel
Svetlana Sozdateleva (Renata), Susan Maclean (Äbtissin)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Immo Karaman relocates the action from 16th-century Cologne to a sanatorium in the first half of the 20th century, a time when grotesque treatment of mental patients was still the norm. Rather than encountering Renata in an inn, Ruprecht, who appears to be a psychiatrist, is fascinated by this troubled patient’s tales of the fiery angel who captured her heart as a youngster and he takes her on as a subject of medical study. Prokofiev’s inn hostess thus becomes an Abbess, whose order runs the asylum. In one sense this re-imagining takes the opera closer to its source material in the early 20th-century novel of the same name by Valerie Brussov, where the action is seen through Ruprecht’s eyes. The composer, writing his own libretto, put the focus on Renata as the lead character, but Karaman’s rethinking does nothing to diminish her role while making Ruprecht the observer of events.

Boris Statsenko (Ruprecht), Jens Larsen (Exorzist) © Hans Jörg Michel
Boris Statsenko (Ruprecht), Jens Larsen (Exorzist)
© Hans Jörg Michel
The Fiery Angel is an opera imbued by magic and devilish happenings. Any idea that this interpretation is an attempt to rationalise its story, or cleanse it of the supernatural, is soon dashed by the poltergeist-like invasion of Ruprecht’s study in Act 2. In a sense, Karaman is playing with our expectations: drawing on filmic precedent, from gothic horror to Hitckockian psycho-thriller, we are left never quite knowing what dimension we are in – real or imagined. As an example, the final scene of Act 3 is set here in a dance hall, and in the aftermath of Ruprecht’s contrived duel with ‘Count Heinrich’ the glitzy scene seems to evaporate in front of our eyes and before we register it we are back in the gloomy asylum – a masterpiece of stagecraft. Elsewhere, Agrippa von Nettesheim’s faith in science over magic is illustrated by some stomach-churningly realistic medical experiments on a couple of patients, and the scene in which Ruprecht is assailed by Faust and Mephistopheles is recast as if these two characters are in a show put on for the patients. And at the very end of the opera, there’s a transformational coup that I shall leave undescribed, so as not to spoil the effect for anyone yet to see the production. Suffice it to say that it explains and astonishes us with the realisation about what we have been witnessing all evening.

Sergej Khomov (Doktor Agrippa von Nettesheim), Boris Statsenko (Ruprecht) © Hans Jörg Michel
Sergej Khomov (Doktor Agrippa von Nettesheim), Boris Statsenko (Ruprecht)
© Hans Jörg Michel
With the set designs by Karaman and Aida Leonor Guardia allowing a constantly shifting perspective within a barn-like shell, the result overall is a terrific sense of theatricality, matched by the performances of a very fine cast. As Renata, Svetlana Sozdateleva is a veteran of recent stagings of the opera in Brussels and Berlin, and she fully inhabited the role. Her fears and visions were forcefully projected in singing that was firm and with diction that had real bite (the opera is sung in the original Russian). Ruprecht is usually cast as a ‘young lover’, but in the context of the staging, showing him as a fatherly, grey-haired doctor made sense and the experienced Boris Statsenko gave him compelling presence with his strongly projected baritone. Among the smaller roles, tenor Sergei Khomov had fun with the doubled-up roles of Agrippa and Mephistopheles and Jens Larson made a sonorous exorcist in the final act. The chorus gave committed, believable performances as nuns and fellow patients.

Conductor Wen-Pin Chien extracted all the lurid colour and frenzied machismo out of Prokofiev’s masterly score and the players of the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out. Although the composer recast much of the music into his Third Symphony when he realised performance of the opera was unlikely (it had to wait until two years after his death for its stage premiere), The Fiery Angel stands as a masterpiece of his youthful experimentation, especially when mounted with as much seriousness, power and sheer theatricality as here.