Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
The Fiery Angel Op.37 – Opera in 5 Acts (1920-1926)
It is Sixteenth-century Germany, and the Knight Ruprecht is shown his room by the landlady of a simple inn. Terrified shrieks and beseechings are heard from behind a locked door in his room. Breaking the door open, Ruprecht discovers a distraught young woman, Renata, who appears to struggling against an invisible foe. Making the sign of the cross with his sword and praying, her terror dissipates and she relates her history of visions to the knight.
As a young girl, an angel (the Fiery Angel), Madiel, appeared to Renata telling her that one day she would become a saint, comforting her and lying with her at night. But Madiel was driven away some years later by the her growing desire for the pleasures of the flesh. The only crumb of comfort left to her came still later in a dream where the Fiery Angel tells her that he will appear again but as a man rather than an Angel. On meeting a count, Heinrich, she is convinced that he is the human incarnation of Madiel and spends a year of complete happiness and fulfilment with him. But Heinrich abandons her and from then on she has been pursued by demons until saved by the valiant Ruprecht.
The landlady appears, warning Ruprecht that the girl is a temptress who lured the Count into her clutches and has been the cause of great trouble in the village. Nothing but a witch and a whore, she must leave immediately. As the landlady leaves for the second time the confused Ruprecht tries to seduce Renata, but seeing that she has longings only for Heinrich, is instead dragged into the search for her sometime lover. A fortune-teller is summoned and asked to predict the future. She too, seems strangely certain of Renata’s guilt and talks of their being blood in the Autumn.
Act 2 – Cologne, Germany
Renata is reading a mystical text, having turned to magic in order to find the Count. Ruprecht is tired of searching every corner of the city, but Renata cannot bear to continue living without Heinrich. The bookseller, Jacob Glock enters with yet more books on the magical arts and the news that spies of the Inquisition are in town. Ruprecht is consumed by love for Renata, but, far from returning any affection she tells him that if she were with Heinrich, the sight of Ruprecht’s remains in the gutter would be as nothing to her.
After burning some magic herbs given to her by a sorceress, knocking sounds are heard from the wall. Obsessed by the fact that it is a spirit messenger relating news of Heinrich, Renata is incandescent with certainty. But the spirits are deceitful and Ruprecht inspects the door to find nobody there. Renata is inconsolable.
Glock, the bookseller, returns and while he does not have the promised magic book in his possession, he offers to introduce Ruprecht to the great philosopher and student of the occult, Agrippa von Nettelsheim.
Agrippa is met in his studio, surrounded by books, skeletons and the paraphernalia of the scholar-magician. But he is evasive and ambiguous in his answers to Ruprecht’s questions, preferring to be known as a scholar and denying any magical associations. He is obliquely revealed to be a pursuant of the diabolical arts (not least by the accusing skeletons at the end of the scene), but as a philosopher refuses to aid Ruprecht and Renata in their quest.
Renata is once again in despair – and this time with reason. Outside Heinrich’s door, Ruprecht finds her having not only found her Heinrich but been spurned by him as the work of the Devil. Renata pledges to love Ruprecht if he will kill Heinrich, whom she now thinks may not, after all, be her Fiery Angel incarnate. The depth of Ruprecht’s love is made manifest in his willingness to die in a duel rather than live a life without Renata, and so he challenges Heinrich. No sooner has she offered a fervent prayer to her Fiery Angel, asking forgiveness for her mistake, than Renata spies Heinrich at the window with Ruprecht. She changes her mind again telling Ruprecht that Heinrich is indeed a true angel, that she almost enjoyed being disabused by him and that her angel must not be hurt in the duel.
Ruprecht is seriously wounded in the duel by the banks of the Rhine. Renata tends him and seems to genuinely sing of her love for him. The chorus of women in the background, though, seem less certain that she is being truthful. The doctor arrives and informs that the knight will live.
Renata and Ruprecht have been together for a time while his wounds heal. But now, in a public garden, she tells him that she must leave to accept the veil at a nunnery rather than succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Ruprecht argues that God created the world and its passions as part of the joy of being in the world. Unswayed, she now believes that Ruprecht is a demon and explains that to curb the body’s desires is to kill oneself. She plunges a knife into herself and turns on him as he tries to prevent her.
A short scene follows where Mephistopheles and Faust enter the garden to watch the fun and as if to demonstrate that both reason and evil have a part to play in the world Ruprecht ascribes only to God. Mephistopheles reveals his dark powers by swallowing whole a forgetful servant boy, only restoring him to life after much pleading by the innkeeper. Faust and his dark lord muse on the nature of man before accosting the love-lorn Ruprecht and invite him to give them a tour of Cologne the following day.
The final act sees the novice Renata and her fellow sisters chanting in the convent crypt. Since her arrival pandemonium has broken loose with the nuns being harassed by demons and terrified by all manner of things going bump-in-the-night. When questioned by the Mother Superior, Renata is ever evasive, insisting that she is on the side of good, as is her saviour, the Fiery Angel.
The stern and intimidating Inquisitor reveals to Renata that the Fiery Angel and her other visions may indeed be the work of Satan. The nuns are divided in their support for the troubled novice, and while the Inquisitor proceeds with the exorcism in Latin, they gradually begin to worship Satan openly, cavorting in lewd and lascivious postures with the Devil’s legions. The nuns, in their frenzy, surround the Inquisitor, informing him that he, too, sold his soul to Hell, even while he renounces Renata as a heretic and issues orders for her to be punished by death for having carnal intercourse with the Devil. Mephistopheles shows the scenes of debauchery to Ruprecht, informing him that Renata is the cause of the panic, while rendering the knight harmless to help her. She is burned at the stake in a breath-taking, cataclysmic finale.
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