If one were to read the libretto of The Fiery Angel "in isolation", then one would be left facing a peculiar story about life in the Middle Ages, a story with no beginning and no end: there is a woman who has visions of demons, she involves a knight who has fallen in love with her in her misadventures, but she is burnt at the stake as a witch and the fate of the knight is unresolved. Of course, there is no opera that can be simplified to just the text of its libretto – an opera must be listened to – but even the music of The Fiery Angel is something of a paradox.
The opera's characters are in a constant state of tension trying to understand whether or not demons actually exist and how they should be dealt with, at the same time not surrendering themselves to the omnipresent inquisition, not destroying themselves and those they love – and are the latter, in fact, deserving of that love? This tension constantly breaks out in the music: it could not be said that Prokofiev's musical language is radical, although The Fiery Angel remains one of the most demanding operas of the 20th century, for both the performers and the audience.
On the other hand, however powerful the spirits of Hell may be concerning the actions of the protagonists, with Prokofiev the evil remains unreal and carnival-like: the music walks a constant tightrope between drama and farce, between "true opera" in the spirit of late romanticism and a merry parody of the latter. Take, for example, the final scene where the nuns almost rip the Inquisitor to pieces, calling him the Devil and demanding he show his tail, while other sisters sing "La-la-la". It is true that it is not easy to listen to all of this: Prokofiev split the chorus into six sections, and it would be hard to imagine such an impressive Bacchanalia in another opera. The Fiery Angel is also one of the most striking operas of the last century.
The scene of the mysterious knocking, the speaking skeletons and Mephistopheles who unexpectedly sings in a tenor voice – all of these are old operatic props, merely highlighted by the use of the unprecedented musical colours. The irony of the distanced observer and the lack of a moral in the finale – this creates an anti-romantic stance. Possessed by her visions, Renata must ascend the bonfire, and tragedy almost occurs, but suddenly everything stops (Prokofiev rejected the dénouement in the literary source, Valery Bryusov's novel) and one can hear fanfares with the final chord in dazzling major key.
To this day, The Fiery Angel has lost none of its power – in some episodes it is hard to believe that this opera was written almost a century ago – and the issues Prokofiev raises about faith and lack of faith remain as current as they have ever been. And the production, staged by Valery Gergiev and director David Freeman, having created an international sensation in 1991, remains the finest interpretation of this opera. Freeman took radical decisions – he staged everything in line with the composer's comments and remarks. And he also added a certain detail: he constrained the real characters within the centre of the stage, and he transformed the hosts of the stage into a pack of voiceless white beings. A great privilege in a materialistic age: now these little demons can haunt us, too. Bogdan Korolyok