Much has been made of the supposed rivalry between the Kirov and Bolshoi theatres, with both visiting London at the same time for short seasons of opera and ballet from their native Russia. With the Kirov exploring Shostakovich On Stage at the Coliseum, their counterparts opened with Francesca Zambello’s acclaimed direction of Prokofiev’s opera at the Royal Opera House.
The subject matter is not, of course, for the faint hearted, drawn from Valery Bryusov’s novel of the same name. Principal character Renata (Tatiana Smirnova) is a truly tortured soul, her very being possessed by her fiery angel, Madiel, a childhood sweetheart who has since passed away. Renata, however, has seen him in Count Heinrich, a more recent acquaintance, played by the dashing Alexander Krutyakov in a wordless part. Tortured by demons, Renata has a potential rescuer in Ruprecht (Boris Statsenko), whom she bewitches throughout, convincing him of the overwhelming need to find Heinrich, an encounter on which her whole being depends.
The challenging first part included Renata’s story from that of a young girl, told in an unbroken ten minute spell that saw Smirnova start somewhat tentatively but grow to fill the stage, her vivid scarlet dress ensuring the audience’s eyes followed her wherever she went. Statsenko, in far more sober beige and grey, was her full-bodied support as a deluded Ruprecht, portraying well the character’s increasing infatuation as he became in turns perplexed, disbelieving and enraged.
As the pair sought to find Heinrich their different reasons were unravelled – Ruprecht wanting him dethroned as Renata’s obsession, but she wanting the ultimate culmination of her love. In their conflicting quests they were ‘helped’ by the fortune teller, the astonishingly rich alto of Evgenia Segenyuk, who cast a spell. The wonderfully smoky effect from her cauldron drifted upwards but she saw blood, seemingly all over Renata’s dress.
The pair should have listened, as a well-choreographed duel between Ruprecht and the recently located Heinrich took place, with Renata’s aide badly wounded. As if that wasn’t enough, his chances of recovery were hindered, Renata refuting her love for him, affections changing like the wind. Smirnova was authentically infuriating here!
A difficult first half then, but well structured as the second half brought immediate light relief in the form of conjuror Mephistopheles, the rosy-cheeked pudding of a figure voiced with great humour by Maxim Paster, who effortlessly became the opera’s comic foil. With Renata seeking solace in a convent the culmination was a stunning scene of attempted exorcism, the first part taking place behind the transparent curtain with luminous accompaniment from Alexander Vedernikov’s orchestral forces. Here Elena Novak’s Mother Superior and Vadim Lynkovsky’s Inquisitor took centre stage, the latter struggling initially to project over the full and loud orchestration.
The final scene was full of dramatic tension, the slate grey set of buildings now turned inwards and blazing with light as a potential gateway to heaven, the progression to the opera’s climax was forcefully realised. A powerful experience which was helped by a visually exciting production and a host of memorable performances, all providing a timely reminder of Prokofiev’s operatic credentials.