This season’s production of Anton Rubinstein’s Демон was one of those bullseyes I talk about below. Leon Botstein clearly admires the score and has become one of its champions. He said so himself in the pre-performance talk this past Sunday. Here, Bard SummerScape has gone to considerable lengths to make it come alive: the production, sets, lighting, and staging all work well with the story and overall mood of the opera, therefore working neither against it nor distracting from it; the handpicked Russian cast of singers and traditional dancers is surely a plus.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s flexible unit set provided the perfect screen for JAX Messenger’s lighting design and Greg Emetaz’s video design. The various moods are enhanced by Kay Voyce’s costumes and Anne Ford-Coates’ hair and makeup. Particularly striking were the contrasts between the claustrophobic cells of the nuns in the convent and the festive, brilliantly colored wedding party, but both could be transformed swiftly as suited the plot: the cells, seemingly safe and impenetrable, offer the nuns no protection from the evil influence of the Demon, who causes the sleeping sisters to have naughty thoughts and desires, or so it seems by their restlessness. He’s there why? He seeks to overcome Tamara’s resistance to his wiles, of course. The anticipatory joy of the wedding party vanishes when the body of Sinodal, Tamara’s betrothed, is brought in on a stretcher. The takeaway: the impact of the performance of Демон was considerably heightened by the mise en scene.
All of the singers are uniformly wonderful too, and I’m not just rushin' to finish this with collective praise…Tamara is the centerpiece here. Soprano Olga Tolkmit, who starred as Xenia in last season’s Dimitrij and who made her American debut as Electra at the SummerScape’s production of Taneyev’s Oresteia, once again takes her character to its emotional extremes. Poor thing, Tamara has become the Demon’s human of choice who, through her love, will assuage his boredom of eternally doing evil and creating havoc, probably meddling with elections. At least he sees her role that way, but, alas, she’s obviously not so quickly on board with this plan. Baritone Efim Zavalny, the Demon, is a smooth fellow who slips unseen in our midst. Evidence of his desperate anticipation of success with the beautiful Tamara can be heard in the changes of his words, vocal line, and music.
The final convent scene is cleverly staged: other male actors of similar height and build, costumed as our Demon, silently flit in and out of the nuns’ cells, infecting their nocturnal dreams. Yes, dear, the Demon is everywhere, just like they tell you in church.
But Nadezhda Babintseva, the Angel, has Tamara’s back: though Tamara eventually caves in to the Demon’s unrelenting wooing…am I giving too much away?...she is rewarded by death and salvation in heaven. Babintseva is a force to conjure with.
Representing Team Humans, tenor Alexander Nesterenko is Tamara’s intended Prince Sinodal, a man sincere in his love for Tamara, en route to his wedding, but, alas, his life is cut short by marauding Tartars. Yakov Strizhak is his rich voiced Old Servant, who survives the onslaught to tender to all the details of the tragedy. Equally rich in voice is Andrey Valentii, Prince Gudal, Tamara’s father, who happily anticipated his daughter’s wedding, but who eventually consents to her pleas to enter a convent where, she feels, she’ll be safe from evil. Ekaterina Egorova is Tamara’s faithful Nanny; Pavel Suliandziga is the Messenger who, ahead of Sinodal’s caravan, thinking all is well, tells all celebrate the Princes imminent arrival.
The Bard Festival Chorale play a number of different roles, all wonderfully differentiated through costume and music. Especially effective were the Pesvebi Georgian Dancers performing the ballet sequences. The Dancers are based in Brooklyn. In sum, it was a festive wedding party in the grand style, set in stark contrast to the gloom of the Demon and the strict silence of the convent.
Thaddeus Strassberger as Director at Bard SummerScape adds now a fifth win to my score sheet.* The action never strayed from the trajectory of the plot and music, enhanced, as stated above, by the sets, lighting, and projections. Tamara’s final scenes, with and later without the Demon, are effectively staged. In addition, secondary characters, particularly the Old Servant, are given additional depth by their presence, even in their silence.
Do not miss Демон! As Leon Botstein claims, it is an opera fully deserving of a place on the world’s stage.
Reviewed performance: Sunday, July 29, 2018
Anton Rubinstein’s Демон is performed two last times in the Sosnoff Theater on the afternoons of Friday, August 3 and Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m.
For tickets, please call 845.758.7900 or check out the website www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
Rimsky-Korskoff’s The Tsar’s Bride is given a concert performance on August 19. Also a fine opera!
Summer time! Next posting is the beginning of the Metropolitan Opera season…Time flies when you’re having fun!
* Strassberger’s staging of Shreker’s Der ferne Klang in 2010 was my first Bard SummerScape opera. I couldn't in good faith, as an opera lover and fan of this opera in particular, let this one slip by, though I'd missed, unfortunately all those seasons of wonders before it. His Le roi malgré lui was dazzling, the Oresteia dark and complex, and more recently The Wreckers were also wins in my book. But the Shreker opera started my relationship with Bard’s SummerScape, which has continued to be a happy and healthy one.
I feel I can count on Leon Botstein to, first of all, pick an opera I’ve not seen, one I would be curious enough to travel for, which, at this point in my life, still amounts to a sizeable number. Then, second, it must be produced and performed in such a way that I am deeply impressed, so much so that, consequently, I drive away, with the setting sun by my side, musically and dramatically rewarded, refreshed, and fulfilled. That’s the bullseye. Демон fit these criteria to a T. Thank you, Bard SummerScape. On to next season. See you there.
Have a wonderful August; gear up for September…J