WORKS: The Fiery Angel (in French)
PERFORMER: Jane Rhodes, Xavier Depraz, Irma Kolassi, Jean Giraudeau, Paul Finel; French Radio & Television Chorus, Paris Opéra Orchestra/Charles Bruck
CATALOGUE NO: 472 723-2 AAD mono Reissue (1957)
This is historic territory indeed. Charles Bruck treated Paris to the first, concert performance of The Fiery Angel in 1954, the year after Prokofiev’s death and two and a half decades after the composer had vainly canvassed European opera houses to host his operatic tale of superstition and sorcery set in Renaissance Cologne. The recording which followed, quite a commitment in 1957, convinced fledgling Prokofiev enthusiasts including Edward Downes that The Fiery Angel was a work of genius and helped secure its reputation. It is, of course, sung not in Prokofiev’s original Russian but in French – the translation the composer worked on so closely with his secretary Mikhail Astrov has been heavily modified – and with two short cuts in the sparring match between troubled heroine Renata and her long-suffering cavalier Ruprecht at the beginning of Act IV.
Generally clear mono sound baulks at Prokofiev’s heavy-metal thrashes, brass intonation is hardly perfect and nuance often lacking; and yet Bruck’s conducting has such dynamism and drive that we are with him all the hair-raising way; how the second and third acts take flight! Jane Rhodes is a Renata of steel, terrifying in her most intense fits of possession and boasting tireless dramatic-soprano strength in the upper register. If Depraz’s fallible knight proves robust and nothing more, there are gains in the smaller male roles, including Paul Finel as a heroic-tenor Agrippa cutting through the infernal swathe of Act II, Scene 2, and Jean Giraudeau, the finest Oedipus of the Fifties, crystal-clear with Mephistopheles’s mirthless merriment. Gergiev boasts a better chorus, authentic Russian and the right sonic punch for the mayhem climaxes; but this is a special case and should be snapped up while the Accord label flourishes.