Rubinstein Opera Revival Beset By Rash Of Demons

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Anton Rubinstein’s 1871 opera ‘The Demon’ is given a rare production by Bard SummerScape. Leon Botstein conducts, with stage direction by Thaddeus Strassberger and set design by Paul Tate dePoo III. (Photos: Stephanie Berger)
By John Rockwell

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – Popular throughout Europe in the late 19th century and still performed intermittently in Russia, Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon (1871) has become a rarity elsewhere. Maybe it fell between the nationalist and internationalist schools of Russian composers in its day (Rubinstein was more of an internationalist, despite nice daubs of Caucasian color in this score). Maybe Rubinstein lacked the strong individual voice of his peers. Maybe, Leon Botstein has suggested, he fell victim to anti-Semitism, then sounded dated with the advent of post-Wagnerian modernism.

Still, The Demon has won friendly responses in its occasional Western revivals. Now Botstein and his Bard SummerScape forces have taken it up with an ambitious production in the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts – the Frank Gehry building with the wavy silvery roof – seen on the July 27 opening night. So maybe this mildly cursed opera will find new Western friends.

Efim Zavalny takes the title role in Rubinstein’s ‘The Demon’ at Bard SummerScape.

Or maybe not. This is an uneven score with an uneven structure, and Bard’s casting and production have their ups and downs. Structurally, the prologue finds the Demon, a former angel expelled from heaven but yearning for a more passion-filled existence, raging against his lot. He spies the lovely Tamara; he thinks she and her girlfriends are beautiful but finds her passionate, too. She is awaiting her betrothed, Prince Sinodal, but he is delayed – presumably the Demon’s doing – then slaughtered by Tartars. That’s the first 70 minutes.

Act II is devoted to an extended, premature celebration anticipating Sinodal’s arrival. He finally does arrive, but as a corpse. Protracted lamentations finally end with Tamara getting her wish to be led off to a convent. Act III, the most dramatically involving, finds the Demon (literally) promising her the world – the universe, really – if she will love him. She succumbs by kissing him (not just kissing in this production), dies, and is wafted to heaven by an unfallen angel.

Olga Tolkmit is Tamara, seen with Yakov Strizhak and Andrey Valentii in ‘The Demon.’

Rubinstein’s music is all over the place, and Botstein’s bland conducting doesn’t help much. Nor does Efim Zavalny as the Demon: He looks sexy but sings weakly. His big number, “Do not weep, child,” was a Chaliapin vehicle, but Zavalny is no Chaliapin. Among modern singers, the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky would have been perfect. He sang the Demon in concert in Moscow in 2015 and was hoping to star in a staged production that was intended to tour, but it was not to be.

The score ranges from sometimes compelling arioso-recitatives to vigorous choruses to graceful dance music to gloomy laments to a final act that enlivens lyricism (here Zavalny was at his best) with actual passion.

Nadezhda Babintseva is the Angel, who carries Tamara to Heaven.

The all-Russian cast beyond Zavalny is variable. Olga Tolkmit, who made her Bard debut in 2013 in Taneyev’s Oresteia and has appeared there since, sounds loud – serious screeches at key dramatic moments – and less secure than six years ago, with a tendency to sing flat and vibratoless. Perhaps she was indisposed or her soprano has declined, or perhaps she is compromised by the stage director Thaddeus Strassberger having her sing so often lying flat on the ground. Nadezhda Babintseva’s warm mezzo-soprano serves her well as the Angel, and Andrey Valentii’s weathered bass suits old Prince Gudal, Tamara’s father. Yakov Strizhak looks too young to be the Old Servant and fades away in his lower register. The best singer is the tenor Alexander Nesterenko as Sinodal, but he gets killed off by the end of the first act.

The American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Festival Chorale do their jobs well, as do the flashy men and flowing women of the Pesvebi Georgian Dancers, imported for the eight minutes of ballet music we hear at Bard. Botsein is more persuasive in the lyrical music than in passages that demand more vigor.

Aside from the opera itself, the most interesting aspect of the evening is the stage production. Paul Tate dePoo III’s unit set, arches, a platform, and convent sleeping cells that slide in and out from the side, support Greg Emetaz’s sometimes cluttered, sometimes haunting video projections. JAX Messenger’s lighting is striking (it turns out Mr. Messenger is a male person, not a collective). Kaye Voyce’s costumes look late 19th century, except for the Demon himself, who was a cross between a stubbly male model and a rock star.

The Pesvebi Georgian Dancers were imported for eight minutes of music.

Which leaves us with with Strassberger’s concept. Instead of simply following Pavel Viskovatov’s libretto, based on a poem famous in Russia by Mikhail Lermontov, Strassberger casts the whole scenario as a flashback of Tamara from the convent. Apart from her wandering mutely and irrelevantly through scenes in which she otherwise has no role, this does no great violence to the opera.

More arresting is Strassberger’s emphasis on sex. Lermontov’s poem ran into trouble in the 1830’s with Russian Orthodox mores and Tsarist censors for its suggestions of diabolical lust. The opera libretto played it safer, but Strassberger eagerly unmutes the lust. Sinodal not only dreams of his impending marriage, but Tamara straddles him enthusiastically. In the last act, the Demon not only arouses Tamara’s cell-mates into writhing onanists, but when Tamara capitulates, she does so not with a kiss but – well, you get the idea. All this sex actually makes dramatic sense, and the lead singers’ vocal limitations don’t get in the way of the dramatic intensity.

Will we be seeing The Demon any time soon at the Met or in Chicago or San Francisco? Not likely. But with a stronger musical performance, this opera might win further Western revivals.

The Demon continues through Aug. 5. For information and tickets, go here.

Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra, and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.

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