The Fiery Angel


Tony Rothman


A Drama in Five Acts


First Draft: February 26, 2000

Minor revisions: March, 2000


Author’s Preface


            The Fiery Angel is the third in a trilogy of plays begun with Mélisande and continued with Plausibility.  Each--hopefully--reflects some aspect of our contemporary world by casting a light on events that took place a century ago.  Each relies heavily on music, heavily enough that each should probably be called a musical play, if not a quasi-opera.

            As in the previous two works, the story told by The Fiery Angel is essentially true.  I would hazard, moreover, that it is the most realistic of the three.  Prokofiev’s opera, The Fiery Angel, exists and although it has perhaps never been performed by an American company, it is by now represented on several well known recordings, one of which won Grammophone’s Best Opera Recording award for 1995.  True as well is that the opera was never performed during Prokofiev’s lifetime, despite many attempts by him to get it staged.  The first performance took place in Venice in 1955, two years after the composer’s death, but it never saw the light of day in the Soviet Union.  The St. Petersburg premiere took place only in early January, 1992, literally within days--maybe hours--after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  By coincidence, I happened to attend the January 3rd performance, which was part of the premiere week; as far as I know it the first timeThe Fiery Angel had ever appeared on a Russian stage.  * 

            More to the point, the story behind the opera, the story that Prokofiev himself never knew, is as factual as it is unbelievable.  To be sure, the tortured love triangle involving Andrei Bely, Nina Petrovskaya and Valery Bryusov that resulted in Bryusov’s novel The Fiery Angel may be the most famous story dating from Russia’s silver age of poetry.  References to it surface in almost any history of the period.  What does not exist is a remotely consistent or unbiased account of what actually took place during that celebrated collision.  The second volume of Andrei Bely’s memoirs, The Beginning of the Century, contains an extremely vivid description of Nina Petrovskaya but it was written twenty years after the fact by a very hurt man.  The actual course of events is alluded to only obliquely.  A famous essay, “The End of Renata,” by Nina’s friend Vladislav Khodasevich is tainted by an absolute hatred for Valery Bryusov.  Bryusov himself was so distraught over whatever took place that his own diary breaks off completely during the crucial years 1904-1905.  Letters between himself and Bely are as oblique as Bely’s memoirs.  Nina Petrovskaya also glosses over events in her fragmentary memoirs.  Secondhand accounts are secondhand and suffer from obvious errors and the usual mistransmission of rumor for fact. 

            So there has been room for invention.  Because everyone agrees that Bryusov scrupulously transcribed the day-to-day events of the affair into the novel (Bely terms The Fiery Angel a “dissertation” about Nina Petrovskaya), I have once or twice taken the usually dangerous liberty of “reverse engineering” from the novel to real life.  For the sake of compression, I have been unable to respect chronology.  Incidents, acquaintanceships and publication dates have all been rearranged.  I have also started the story about two years before it actually began in order to make is coincide with the opening of the new century, which I felt was not only compelling, but essential in order to give some idea of the mileu that engendered this bizarre and unfortunate tale.  In the last act I have gone further and transposed some events from the Berlin apartment of Nina Berberova to the Paris apartment of Zinaida Gippius. 

            For all my juggling, I have confined the events of The Fiery Angel closely to the period in which they took place and all the poetry I have selected was written within a year or so of the appropriate dates and “used” pretty much in the manner described.  Translation of the poetry has, as always, proved problematical.  The originals are invariably rhymed, which is far easier to accomplish in Russian than in English.  Also, much of it strikes the modern reader--at least this modern reader--as simple-minded and even silly.  One must accept, I think, that theirs was a more naive age.  Considering all this, I have striven to preserve meaning rather than rhyme and have attempted not to improve on sophistication.  If this amounts to tightrope walking with the rope on the floor then I must plead guilty.  As to the result of the translations as well as the rest, that, as always, is up to others.







Nina Ivánovna Petróvskaya (NINA); (Most reliable dates 1884-1928)--A minor poetess and short-story writer of the Russian symbolist, or decadent, movement.  Physical descriptions of her vary considerably but she was apparently petite with penetrating eyes.  An early photo in Bely’s memoirs is not terribly revealing.  Her laugh is contemptuous and, except for her moments of ecstasy, there is a dark edge to everything she says.  About twenty at the opening of the play, forty-five in the last act. 

Borís Nikoláevich Bugáev (BB); (1880-1934)--The real name of Andrei Bely, one of the leading Russian symbolist writers.  His most famous work isPetersburg, considered by Nabokov to be one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century.   In his early-mid twenties at opening of the play, about forty-five in the last act. 

Valéry Yákovlevich Bryúsov (BRYUS); (1873-1924)--The ostensible leader of the Russian symbolist movement; poet, novelist, translator, editor.  Extremely famous during his time, largely forgotten today.  Author of the novel The Fiery Angel, upon which Prokofiev based his opera.  In his late twenties at the opening of the play.


Supporting Roles:

Konstantín Dmítrievich Balmónt (BAL); (1867-1942)--The most famous poet of his generation.  A legend in his own time, the equivalent of a rock star.  Died in utter poverty and neglect.  He evidently pronounced his name with the accent on the second syllable.  In his early thirties at the opening of the play, about fifty-five in the last act.

Zinaída Nikoláevna Gíppius (GIPPIUS); (1867-1945)-- Famous symbolist poet and critic.  Mystical, capricious, malicious.  With her husband, the even more famous Dmitri Merezhovsky, founded the Religious-Philosophical Society in Petersburg.  By her own description, “Physically more like a woman, emotionally more like a man.”  Singular appearance with ankle-length hair.  Thirty or so at the opening of the play, about fifty-five in the last act.

Renata(N)--A woman of 16th-century Germany.  The heroine of Bryusov’s novel.

Renata(O)--The same as she appears in Prokofiev’s opera.  This role is sung.

Ruprecht(N)--A 16th century German knight.  The hero of Bryusov’s novel.

Ruprecht(O)--The same, as he appears in the opera.  This role is sung.

Sergéi Sergéevich Prokófiev (PROK); (1891-1953)--The composer.  In his thirties at the time of this play.

A Waiter in a Parisian cafe.


Minor roles, in order of appearance:

Mephistopheles, as he appears in the opera (silent)

Faust (silent)

A Grand Inquisitor, as he appears in the opera and novel.  This role is sung for the       opera, spoken for the novel.

Three Theatre-goers: 

            Galya, Misha, Anton

Prokofiev’s Escort

The Argonauts--literary circle of Bely’s friends and admirers:

          Alyosha, Sasha,Volodya, Kolya, Liza,Tatyana

An Inkeeper (silent)

Madiel--the Fiery Angel (silent)

A Journalist

An Old Fortune Teller, as in the novel and also as in the opera

A Servant, as in the novel and also as in the opera

Hélčne--a medium

Three sitters at a seance--two female, one male

Master Leonard--A satanic figure, half man-half goat

Sarraska--A young witch

Dmitri Sergeevich Merezhovsky  (MEREZ); (1865-1941)--Famous symbolist novelist, polemicist and poet.  The husband of Zinaida Gippius.


(The minor roles can be covered by four men and three women.)

Other guests, nuns and witches. 


The action takes place in Paris in the 1920s, in Moscow in the first years of the 1900s, in a novel of 16th century Germany, and in an opera.


            Music is an integral part of the production.  All the selections indicated are readily available on CD.  The Fiery Angel is currently available in two recordings.  The one used for the timings is the performance by Valery  Gergiev and the Kirov Opera, [Phillips 442 078-2].  This production is also available on video, which could conceivably be used for the operatic sequences.  The better program notes, ones more relevant to this play, are by Richard Taruskin for the Neeme Jarvi recording [DG].  There are several recordings available of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, which is based on music from the opera.  For the timings I used Neeme Jarvi’s recording with the Scottish Symphony on Chandos [8401], simply because I have it. 

            For the remaining music, the Little Triptych by Georgi Sviridov is available on Olympia OCD 520.  The Liturgy of St. John of Chyrsostom by Konstantin Shvedov is available on Melodiya [SUCD 11-00318].  A satisfactory recording of the Miaskovsky Sixth Symphony does not currently exist.  The old Kondrashin recording, reissued on Russian Disc, is the better performance, particularly in the first movement, but the sound is far better on the more recent recording by Veronika Dudarova and the Symphony Orchestra of Russia on Olympia OCD 510.  The Kondrashin has been used for the first movement excerpts, Dudarova for the last movement excerpts.  The electronic music by Xenakis is available on EMF CD 003.  For the Shostakovich and Prokofiev violin concertos I use the Vengerov-Rostropovich recording on Teldec [4509-92256-2]. The Shostakovich 11th Symphony as performed by Stokowski and the Houston Symphony [EMI CDC-7 47419 2] has never been matched.  

* The Gambler played on the 2nd; I never discovered what happened on New Year’s day.  For this play I have put the premiere on January 1.