Covid 19 has hit the Arts hard. How do you social distance in a theatre, or on a stage, or even in an orchestra pit? Answer...you can't, and even if you could, most theatres could not afford to stage their productions with only every other seat available for sale. And yet, entertainment is exactly what the soul craves at a time like this - drama, comedy, music - an hour (or 17 if you are watching Opera North's complete Ring Cycle) of catharsis; an hour of worrying about other people's problems (just avoid the myriad of operas about impoverished artists dying of incurable diseases), of laughing or crying, or sheer confusion...
...so thank goodness for online streaming.
Some of the world's greatest theatres and opera houses are sharing their productions online, for free. As well as discussing our own work, The Opera Makers will be using this blog to talk about some of the incredible works which are currently on - in your very homes.
First up is Prokofiev's Ognenny Angel (The Fiery Angel), coming from The Bavarian State Opera.
You can find the whole opera streamed here: https://operlive.de/der-feurige-engel/ , but It's only available until May 9th - so be quick...
"Occultism and masochistic obsession; demons, orgies and writhing nuns. These were some of the topics Prokofiev was wrestling with in 1923 when, deep into work on his opera “The Fiery Angel,” he married his first wife, Lina, in southern Bavaria.
You have to wonder about their honeymoon." – Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times
Composed on an off in the 1920's the opera is based on a novel by Valery Byusuv in which a young knight gets himself involved with an unchaste woman who is into the occult - in modern times we might imagine a well brought up, virginal English chap with political aspirations starting a relationship with a rampant, dominatrix goth. It took the best part of the decade for Prokofiev to find a producer to stage the piece. It's rarely ever performed today.
Strangely, however, it was the first piece I was asked to perform in at music college. As part of a PhD project, a student at Goldsmith's university was collating an early version of the work from the composer's original drafts. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Not yet even at the college at that juncture, I was posted a score in Cyrillic. Needless to say, I was not best pleased...though amusingly, neither was the Russian coach who was roped in to coaching me; as the Ukrainian student working on the opera apparently didn't actually speak Russian.
"You cannot sing this rubbish" declared the coach. "Why not?" "Because instead of writing 'I heal sick people' it says 'I heal fat people.'"
The music is exceptionally powerful once you understand the way Prokofiev is playing with mood, sarcasm and horror. It's not tuneful, but not a-tonal, and very, very dramatic. Prokofiev certainly had a flair for demonic rhythm and tonality.
So what is it all about? Well, Ognenny Angel tells the story of Renata and Ruprecht...but mostly Renata, who doesn't leave the stage for the entirety of the piece.
Ruprecht, a young knight, takes a room for the at an inn. He is intrigued by the woman in the adjoining chamber who makes a great deal of clamour and seems to be possessed.
They get talking and she tells him how, as a younger woman, she was befriended by an angel who gave her healing powers (though not of the weight watchers variety...). However, she made a fatal error and told the angel that she would like to make love to him. Angrily the angel agreed, promising to come to her in human form. When she subsequently met Count Ottermann and jumped into bed with him she was upset to find that far from behaving angelically, he upped and disappeared.
Having heard this story, Ruprecht, rather than thinking "run away from the crazy lady," promptly falls in love with her and agrees to track down the errant count to whom she gave her virtue.
Naturally, they decide that sorcery is the best way to locate the count. Sinister knocks on the door following an incantation drive Renata bonkers, but don't lead anywhere, so they go to find a powerful conjurer to help them - Agrippa von Nettesheim. Scared of the Inquisition, he refuses.
In the next act, however, the count has turned up. As he has a lot more sense than Ruprecht, he rejects Renata. Renata begs Ruprecht to avenge her honour and he agrees to a dual with the count. Useless as he is, Ruprecht is wounded, and the count escapes unharmed.
The story jumps forward in time and we see Renata declare that she will join a convent. It seems convents were easier to get into in the 16th century.
Then there is an odd scene (often cut) in which Mephistopheles and Faust are seen in a tavern...a touch of humorous relief in a relentless gothic opera.
Finally, we see Renata in the convent. She has been accused of being possessed by demons. A botched exorcism ensues, at which point hell erupts on stage and the orchestration goes completely bonkers. The only thing that can put an end to the lunacy is what nobody expects – the Spa... sorry, German Inquisition. Renata is condemned to be burned at the stake.
It all may sound far fetched and bonkers, but as this is such a rarely staged piece it is well worth checking out. There ais some glorious singing, and the staging is visually vivid. If you have 2 hours and 23 minutes to spare...they are worth sparing here.
Becca Marriott - Artistic Director