Demons & Angels

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

October 1st, 2009

I’m not a big fan of Dan Brown’s works, both his “Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” (now both films), I find heretical and full of mumbo jumbo. While I enjoy a decent yarn alone with everyone else, his passing off as ‘faction’ much of his work to the gullible seems pseudoism to a degree that while may earn him millions in book sales, is rather disheartening to those of us who recognize a snake oil salesman when we see one. And in any event there are far better works than Browns turgid misrepresentations of history out there if one cares to search for them. One of these is The Fiery Angel, a 1908 novel written by the Russian Valery Bryusov. In it, he relates the apparently true tale of demonic possession in 16th century Cologne. It depicts a love-triangle between Renata, a passionate young woman, Ruprecht, a knight and Madriel, the Fiery Angel. The novel tells the story of Ruprecht’s attempts to win the love of Renata whose spiritual integrity is seriously undermined by her participation in occult practices. The novel is a meticulous account of sixteenth century Germany, notably Cologne and the world of the occult. Characters such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Faust appear alongside a description of a Black Mass. Indeed, Faust appears at a tavern with Mephistopheles, the latter of whom, annoyed with the slow service, eats the waiter alive. It’s not exactly box-office friendly, more Quadruple X in content.

Essentially Renata has been seduced by Madriel as a young girl, but when she comes of age and asks Madriel to consummate their love with her, he disappears. From then on she is plagued by demons, but then thinks that Madriel has returned to earth in the guise of a Count, Heinrich. Besotted by him, she meets Ruprecht (who fancies Renata something rotten) and eventually track him down. Ruprecht challenges Heinrich to a duel, in which he is seriously wounded. Renata flees to a convent, but demons pursue her and terrorize the fellow nuns. The Inquisitor is called, and literally, all hell breaks lose. The demons become aggressive, stripping the nuns of their habits, seducing and raping them. The blame is put squarely on Renata, who is sentenced to be immediately burnt at the stake. The catch here of course is that the Church has sacrificed Renata to the Demons when she had sought the sanctuary of Christ. In denying her protection, the Inquisitor is seen as being inferior to the powers of darkness.

Happily, this fraught, terrifying and demonic tale was captured as an opera by Prokofiev, where is must surely rank as one of his best works. Three and a half hours long, with seven scenes in five acts, it makes “Angels & Demons” look like Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps also not surprisingly, its content and staging has lead it to be staged very rarely. Of those that have, a performance at the Mariinsky in 1993 conducted by Valery Gergiev is available, and is also on DVD. The ending of Angels & Demons, with Ewan ManGregor taking off in a helicopter to rescue the Vatican from being blown up by an anti-matter device is pure silliness. Watching on stage, as naked nuns are ravished by demons and the lead soprano is burnt at the stake is far more like it. If you like opera, you’ll love this, and if you’re into Dan Brown, well take a glance of this and see how demonic literature should really be handled.    

An excerpt from the opera is here.