This summer it’s a return to Eastern Europe, if you call St. Petersburg “Eastern Europe,” not “Western Asia”…anyway, Bard SummerScape performs Демон (Demon) by Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. In addition, the Bard Music Festival presents Rimsky-Korsakov and His World, with a focus on The Poetry of Cinema. Other features include Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan, based on the J.M. Barrie play, adapted and directed by Christopher Alden.
Anton Rubinstein’s operatic masterpiece Демон first premiered to great acclaim at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in January of 1875. It was his most successful opera, though neither his first nor his last; although performed frequently in Russia, the opera is infrequently performed in the USA or in Western Europe. It is known to most of us, if at all, primarily by recordings of live performances. Bard’s SummerScape brings it to life!
Демон is based on a fantasy poem by Mikhail Lermontov, which was written in 1841. The opera is in three acts, these bracketed by a Prologue and Epilogue/Apotheosis. The opera boasts rich choral writing, a lot of moody solemnity, a range of emotional despair, death and transfiguration. Not to give it away, Heaven wins, the Demon loses.
The 2018 Summerscape production of Демон is conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by the renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger, with sets by Paul Tate dePoo III, costumes by Kaye Voyce, and lighting by JAX Messenger. An all-Russian cast is led by the lovely sparkling-voiced soprano Olga Tolkmit in the role of Tamara, alongside baritone Efim Zavalny in his American debut in the title role. Bard opera fans will recall that Tolkmit appeared last season as Xenia in Bard’s stirring production of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij.
The tale of the Демон is relatively straight forward: in the Prologue, the Demon is bored, even doing evil is no fun anymore. The Angel tells him love will solve his problem, but warns that love is sacred in Heaven and on Earth. In Act I, the Demon, cruising low, comes upon the beautiful Tamara and her Nanny. Tamara senses something: at first he is only a presence, but then he is a haunting, enticing voice, and finally he appears. Tamara is struck as much by his beauty as by her own strange emotions, but Nanny comes to the rescue. All the while Tamara is awaiting the return of Prince Sinodel for their wedding.
Change of scene: Sinodel, high in the mountains, longs to return to his true love. He is accompanied by his wise Old Servant and several retainers as they travel through the night, but they are ambushed by Tartars. The Prince is shot by the attackers and dies as the Demon appears to him, uttering Tamara’s name. Guess who probably recruited the Tartars.
Meanwhile, Act II, back at the ranch, Prince Gudal is preparing for the wedding festivities. The Messenger brings bad news about Sinodel’s death. Tamara throws herself on his corpse, hearing now the Demon telling her gently not to cry. This aria, Ne plach dit’a, ne plach naprasna (Do not weep, child, do not waste your tears), was recorded in 1911 by the great Feodor Chaliapin.* Tamara is justifiably confused. The Demon continues with the dreamy Na vazdushnam akeane (On the ocean of the air…), eloquently making promises of wonderful things and delights. But Tamara starts from her trance and, no fool, requests that she be delivered to a convent.
Now in Act III our Demon hovers outside her tower in the convent. He's conflicted about, on the one hand, being immortal and unhappy and bored in contrast to, on the other, being mortal, imperfect, of course, but perhaps a better match for Tamara, who fervently prays within. He is falling for her. However, the Angel warns him again not to mess with Tamara’s love. But our Demon seems to think she is his already, so he gets on with it by entering Tamara’s cell. He tells her who he is in the aria Ja tot, katoramu vnimala (I am the one to whom you listened in the silence of the midnight hour). He and Tamara go back and forth, but Tamara, worn down, seals their “love” with a kiss…well, to quote the synopsis I’m paraphrasing this from, “The angels are stunned.” You betcha!
In the Epilogue, the Angel restores Tamara’s soul to grace and tells the Demon to get lost. Which he does. In the Apotheosis, Tamara’s soul is borne up to Heaven as the angels sing. (Somewhere I have in me a piece on variations on the theme of Devils and Love with Women on earth in opera to discuss, six at least, one in each major operatic language, Демон representing Russian opera…maybe later this month).
Anton Rubinstein (1829 – 1894) was an enormous musical talent and to some extent a force in the establishment of "Russian" music. For some background, whereas Michael Glinka wrote the first major operas in Russian for the Tsar, he spent much of his time studying music in Germany with Dehn in Berlin and traveling to France and Italy, soaking up operatic styles. Glinka greatly admired and actually met Bellini, for one. A Life for the Tsar (St. Petersburg, 1836) established the genre of Russian historical opera, later mastered by Mussorgsky; Ruslan and Lyudmilla (St. Petersburg, 1842) established the genre of Russian fantasy opera, later mastered by Rimsky Korsakov. These are two fine operas! Glinka died in 1857.
Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Glinka's rival of sorts, composed operas based on French sources also in the French style of Meyerbeer and Halévy, but later, by the time he composed his Rusalka (St. Petersburg, 1856), he followed Russian folk songs and harmonies; his even later The Stone Guest (completed by Cui and Rimsky Korsakov in 1872) anticipated Wagner’s endless melody. This other Rusalka is a fine opera too! Chaliapin was outstanding as the Miller in Rusalka.
Rubinstein, as well, studied with Dehn in Germany, but sought to give more structure and identity to Russian music. He founded the Russian Musical Society in 1859 and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. Yet he, like his predecessors, was criticized for leaning still toward the West. His most famous student, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who traveled frequently to Western Europe, ‘sinned’ also by sometimes choosing plots from Western sources (as for his three full length ballets and then, e.g., Friedrich Schiller for The Maid of Orleans).
But by this time one Vladimir Stasov, the powerful critic, had brought together the so called moguchaya kuchka (the Mighty Handful) of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Mily Balakirev, and, when he was sober, Modest Mussorgsky. Not only did the five work toward a ‘cleansing’ Russian music, they formally eschewed Western sources for their operas…well, Cui cheated often on this as far as subject matter and Rimsky Korsakov had a musical revelation on witnessing the complete Ring in St. Petersburg via Angelo Neumann’s touring group. Balakirev didn’t compose opera, Borodin died with Prince Igor unfinished. Igor Stravinsky emerged from this group to establish his own sound.
The Demon was the first Russian opera to be performed in London (Covent Garden, 1881), though not in Russian; Демон was also the first opera performed in Russian in London (1888). The opera premiered in the USA in San Francisco in 1922; Демон has not been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, even during the heyday before WWI and the years twixt, the 20s and 30s, when Feyodor Chaliapin ruled the stage. Though it would seem so, it is not true that the role of the Demon was written explicitly for Chaliapin: he was just shy of two years old when Демон premiered. But the young basso first sang the role the year before the composer died, becoming later one of its champions, as he would for many strong bass characters in French, Italian, and Russian operas.
There are numerous recordings. Mine is the Wexford Festival Opera Production in 1994. Others exist, though. Always good to prep for these things.
*The late baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky recorded the three arias mentioned above on a Philips CD, as well as other selections from the Russian literature.
Демон is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the evening of Friday, July 27 at 8 p.m. and the afternoons of Sunday, July 29; Wednesday, August 1, Friday, August 3; and Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m. The Opera Talk by conductor Leon Botstein is on Sunday, July 29, at noon in the theatre.
For tickets, please call 845.758.7900 or check out the website www.fishercenter.bard.edu. See you there!
Summer time! Next posting will be the beginning of Year 5 of OperaMetro! Time flies when you’re having fun…