Sergei Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel
By Joel Kasow
Galina Gorchakova - Renata;
Sergei Leiferkus - Ruprecht;
Kirov Chorus and Orchestra, St. Petersburg;
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Philips 446-078-2: 2 discs (1:58:57)
Prokofiev's concise operatic masterpiece has now reached its third recording, the second in the original Russian. Captured during performances in St. Petersburg in September 1993 with the incomparable Galina Gorchakova under the mesmeric baton of Valery Gergiev, The Fiery Angel is given a technicolor performance by a large cast of characters who bring their cameos to life with a few lines each.
Prokofiev came across Bryusov's roman à clef while on tour in the United States, unaware of its scandalous aspect, and finished composing the work while (unknown to him) living almost next door to the woman who was the original protagonist. Her hysteria is captured in Prokofiev's demanding writing for Renata, who is onstage for almost the entire duration of the opera and is required to combat a large orchestra often going at full tilt.
The requirements of the role are in many ways similar to that of Strauss' Salomé in that the same conviction and gleaming innocence are necessary to convey the character, while sufficient stamina is required to get through to the end. Jane Rhodes, the first Renata on record, sang both roles in her early years but with insufficient vocal resources so that her career rapidly foundered.
Neither of the other two recorded Renatas has yet tackled Strauss' bloodthirsty heroine, perhaps wisely, as one such role in a singer's repertoire may be more than enough. Gorchakova is (temporarily?) retiring the role which has brought her much acclaim from her active repertoire so that we will now be able to hear her in the Italian repertory as well as the Russian (Philips will soon be releasing a recital disk in which both facets are displayed). That she has left us this souvenir is gratifying as the fusion of singer and role is as complete as that of Welitsch and Salomé. Leiferkus in the only other role which is more than episodic makes his mark, but his incisive voice is lacking in color so that his only means of expressivity is the use of dynamic variation and textual emphasis.
Gergiev as master architect deserves more than the disparaging remarks which are currently his reward from a segment of the French press. His control of the orchestra ensures that the singers are never overpowered, and his ability to draw a brilliant range of colors remains a constant source of amazement. The idiomatic command renders this the version of preference over the otherwise excellent Järvi version on DGG with a less charismatic Renata.
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