Demon by Anton Rubinstein
Cast & Creative TeamThe American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Paul DePoo, Scenic Design
Kaye Voyce, Costume Design
Jax Messenger, Lighting Design
Onofrio Colucci, Movement Director
Jordan Fein, Assistant Director
Roza Tulyaganova, Diction Coach and Assistant Director
Efim Zavalny as Demon
Olga Tolkmit as Tamara
Nadezdah Babintseva as Angel
Ekaterina Egorova as Nanny
Aleksander Nesterenko as Sinodal
Iakov Strizhak as Old Servant
Andrei Valentii as Gudal
Pavel Suliandziga as Messenger
Demon by Anton Rubinstein
By Emily Frey
It is easy to imagine what an 1871 opera based on Mikhail Lermontov’s The Demon ought to sound like. Lermontov’s narrative poem is set in Georgia and subtitled An Eastern Story; the poem’s many lyrical digressions on the Caucasus and its people provide composers with every excuse to furnish a smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing musical exotica. The Demon also features a supernatural antihero, whose devilish exploits earned the poem a tortuous journey through the religious censor’s office. Here, too, 19th-century opera provided clear precedents: a fantastic menace like Lermontov’s title character all but demanded to be tricked out in hair-raising, harmonic novelty.
One could be forgiven for expecting an operatic adaptation of The Demon to sound like a mash-up of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin’s greatest hits—overflowing with audacious harmonies, reedy timbres, and feats of extravagant melisma. That is exactly what critics did expect when they went to see Anton Rubinstein’s adaptation of Demon in 1875. The “Eastern” elements were dependably in place, although confined to divertissements (choruses and dances) and the serpentine vocal lines of Prince Sinodal, the Demon’s romantic rival, who fails to survive the only scene in which he appears. But where was the supernatural in the work Rubinstein labeled a “fantastic opera”? César Cui, the least distinguished composer and most determined critic among the Mighty Five (a group of nationalist composers that also included Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov), could identify only one fleeting musical moment that fit the “fantastic” bill. Meanwhile, the opera’s grand finale—in which the Demon infiltrates a nunnery to seduce a Georgian princess—seemed to Cui nothing short of absurd, for it referenced a style of music that was anything but demoniacal. The critic noted snidely that Rubinstein’s finale was “composed from a variety of romances”—the romance being a modest song genre that struck a balance between the folksy and the cosmopolitan, combining traditionally “Russian” melodic elements with Western-style harmonization and light accompaniment. An eminently commercial genre, the Russian romance was associated above all with amateur performance in middle-class homes. In the finale of Demon, then, with the dramatic stakes eschatologically high, Rubinstein had supplied—salon music. Cui’s final judgment of Demon was appropriately damning: “This opera is altogether ordinary and inspires little desire to see it a second time.”
Audiences disagreed. Demon became the most popular Russian opera of the 1870s (a decade that saw the premieres of both Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin), racking up more than 100 stagings in both St. Petersburg and Moscow before being exported to Paris, London, Köln, and eventually, New York. Cui was on to something, however, in asserting that Rubinstein had made Demon “ordinary.” Opera has a way of inflating the life-sized into the grandiose, but Rubinstein’s adaptation of Demon did the opposite to Lermontov’s title character. A descendant of Faust, Milton’s Lucifer, and the various Promethei of English Romanticism, Lermontov’s Demon is a titanic figure whose revolt—against an austere God who seeks obedience rather than love—is more to be marveled at than identified with. His motivations are powerful but often obscure (“And on his lofty brow / Nothing registered,” writes Lermontov at the end of the third stanza), and his love for Princess Tamara, dependent on her beauty alone, seems 8 Demon fishercenter.bard.edu 9
unlikely to endure. The opera’s libretto, concocted by Lermontov scholar Pavel Viskovatov, filled in many of the character’s psychological gaps. Far more than his literary precursor, the operatic Demon is an intensely emotional being for whom static, heavenly bliss seems a torment. He wants to be human, not immortal, and his rebellion is not simply born of boredom, as it is in Lermontov’s poem. Rather, it stems from his desire to experience all human feelings, not just the tranquil ones. “What is the radiance of eternal power to me?” Rubinstein’s Demon asks. “What is holy paradise? I want freedom and passion, not peace.” The opera also adds depth to the Demon’s infatuation with Tamara, for here it is not only her appearance that attracts him. Spying Tamara among a group of girlfriends, the Demon muses: “Yes, like them, she is beautiful —but not passionless, like they are!” Passion, once again, is what this Demon craves, and passion is what distinguishes him from all the other characters save Tamara. Psychologically speaking, the literary Demon had been something of a sphinx; his operatic counterpart has legible emotions that are aired at length.
In a word, then, the opera humanizes its protagonist. If Lermontov’s Demon had been an archetypal Romantic genius—Prometheus with a Russian accent—Rubinstein’s was a devil made for the Age of Realism, a life-sized and relatable fiend. (Rubinstein was not the only Russian of that era to cut the devil down to size, as readers of Dostoevsky’s Demons and The Brothers Karamazov can attest.) Viewed from this angle, the opera’s frequent reference to the domestic romance, that most “ordinary” of musical idioms, seems not so absurd as Cui had alleged. Addressing each other through a series of romances (pumped up for the opera stage, but still recognizable as such), the Demon and Tamara communicate their real feelings through music that Rubinstein’s 19th-century Russian audience could identify as coming from real life. That association, between the music of the opera and that of the contemporary Russian home, might help to account for why Demon never really succeeded as an export item, despite its enormous popularity within Russia. Describing the opera’s poor reviews in the London press, Rubinstein’s American biographer posited in 1939: “[It] needed Russian listeners, credulous as children, who could accept a demon lover on the stage.” Maybe not all of this is nonsense—though it hardly taxes the intellect to remember many sillier things that Western opera audiences have accepted. (A magic helmet that can change a giant into a dragon comes to mind.) But perhaps Demon did need Russian listeners, who lived their daily lives to the soundtrack of the domestic romance—the “ordinary” genre that, in Rubinstein’s most popular Russian opera, comes to serve as the language of authentic feeling.
In Tolstoy’s What Is Art? (1897), the aging writer argues that what separates good art from bad is social function: good art unites, bad art divides, and so for art to be good it has to be above all accessible. Twenty years earlier, the music critic Herman Laroche described Rubinstein in proto- Tolstoyan terms: “Rubinstein addresses himself to the masses, speaking in terms that are simple and understandable, and meets with a sympathetic response.” The word “sympathetic” gets Rubinstein’s procedures in Demon just about right. That opera is one of Rubinstein’s most sympathetic creations, connecting the feeling beings on both sides of the auditorium through the “ordinary” language of domestic song.
Emily Frey holds a PhD in musicology from University of California, Berkeley, and is visiting assistant professor of Russian at Swarthmore College.
Demon by Anton Rubinstein
THE DEMON An Eastern Legend
by Mikhail Lermontov
Part I His way above the sinful earth The melancholy Demon winged And memories of happier days About his exiled spirit thronged; Of days when in the halls of light He shone among the angels bright; When comets in their headlong flight Would joy to pay respect to him As, chaste among the cherubim, Among th' eternal nebulae With eager mind and quick surmise He'd trace their caravanserai Through the far spaces of the skies; When he had known both faith and love, The happy firstling of creation! When neither doubt nor dark damnation Had whelmed him with the bitterness Of fruitless exile year by year, And when so much, so much...but this Was more than memory could bear. II Outcast long since, he wandered lone, Having no place to call his own, Through the dull desert of the world While age on age about him swirled, Minute on minute - all the same. Prince of this world - which he held cheap - He scattered tares among the wheat.... A joyless task without remission, Void of excitement, opposition - Evil itself to him seemed tame. Ill And so - exiled from Paradise - He soared above the peaks of ice And saw the everlasting snows Of Kazbek and the Caucasus, And, serpentine, the winding deeps Of that black, dragon-haunted pass The Daryal gorge; then the wild leaps Of Terek like a lion bounding With mane of tangled spray that blows Behind him, and a great roar sounding Through all the hills, where beast and bird On mountain scree and azure steeps The river's mighty voice had heard; And, as he flew, the golden clouds Streaked from the South in tattered shrouds... Companions on his Northbound course; And the great cliffs came crowding in And brooded darkly over him Exuding some compelling force Of somnolence above the stream... And on the cliff-tops castles reared Their towered heads and baleful stared Out through the mists - wardens who wait Colossal at the mighty gate Of Caucasus - and all about God's world lay wonderful and wild... But the proud Spirit looked with doubt And cool contempt on God's creation, His brow unruffled and serene Admitting no participation. IV Before him now another scene In vivid beauty blooms. The patterned vales' luxuriant green Spread like a carpet on the looms Of Georgia, rich and blessed ground! These poplars like great pillars tower, And sounding streams trip over pebbles Of many colours in their courses. And, ember-bright, the rose trees flower Where nightingales forever warble To marble beauties fond discourses Forever deaf to their sweet sound. On sultry days the timid deer Seek out an ivy-curtained cave To hide them from the midday heat; How bright, how live the leaves are here! A hundred voices soft conclave A thousand flower-hearts that beat! The sensuous warmth of afternoon, The scented dew which falls to strew The grateful foliage 'neath the moon, The stars that shine as full and bright As Georgian beauties' eyes by night!... Yet in the outcast's barren breast Abundant nature woke no new Upsurge of forces long at rest, Touched off no other sentiment Than envy, hatred, cold contempt. V Right high the house, right wide the court Grey-haired Gudaal has builded him... In tears and labour dearly bought By slaves submissive to his whim. Across the neighbouring cliffs its shade From sunrise dark and cool is laid A steep stair in the cliff-face hewn Leads from the corner-tower down To the Aragva. Down this stair Princess Tamara, young and fair, Goes gleaming, snow white veils a-flutter, To fetch her jars of river water. VI In austere silence heretofore The house has looked across the valleys; But now wide open stands the door Gudaal holds feast to mark the marriage Of his Tamara: now the wine Flows freely and the zurna skirts; The clan is gathered round to dine And on the roof-top, richly spread With orient rugs. the promised bride Sits all amongst her laughing girls: In games and songs their time is sped And merriment. Beyond the hills The semicircle of the sun Has sunk already. Now the fun Crows fast and furious. Now the steady Rhythmic clapping and the singing The bride brings to her feet, poised ready, Her tambourine above her head Is circling, she herself goes winging Bird-light above rug, then stops, Looks round, and lets her lashes drop That envious hide her shining glance; And now she raises raven brows, Now suddenly sways forward slightly Her slender foot peeps out, and lightly It slides and swims into the dance; And see she smiles - a joyous gleam Aglow with childish merriment. And yet... the white moon's sportive beam In rippling water liquid bent With such a smile could scarce compare More live than life. than youth more fair. VII So by the midnight star I swear By blazing East and beaming West No Shah of Persia knew her peer No King on earth was ever blessed To kiss an eye so full and fine. The harem's sparkling fountain never Showered such a form with dewy pearls! Nor had mortal fingers ever Caressed a forehead so divine To loose such splendid curls; Indeed, since Eve was first undone And man from Eden forth must fare No beauty such as this, I swear, Had bloomed beneath the Southern sun. VIH So now for the last time she danced Atasi Tomorrow, she, the heir Of old Gudaal, the daughter fair Of liberty must bow her head To a slave's fate like one entranced, Adopt a country not her own, A family she'd never known ä Often a secret doubt would shed A shadow on her radiant face; Yet all her movements were so free Appealing, redolent of grace So full of sweet simplicity That, had the Demon soaring high Above looked down and chanced to see... Then, mindful of his former race, He had turned from her ä with a sigh.... IX The Demon did see.... For one second It seemed to him that heaven beckoned To make his arid soul resound With glorious, grace-bestowing sound - And once again his thought embraced The sacrosanct significance Of Goodness, Beauty and of Love! And, strangely moved, his memory traced The joys that he had known above A chain of long magnificence Before him link on link unfolding As though he watched the headlong flight Of star on star shoot through the night.... And, long the touching scene beholding, Held spell-bound by some Power unseen, New sadness in his heart awoke. Then. suddenly, emotion spoke In accents once familiar; Could this yet be regeneration? The subtle promptings of temptation Had gone as though they had not been... Oblivion? - God gave this not yet: - Nor would he, if he could, forget!...
Demon by Anton Rubinstein
The American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Anton Rubinstein’s operatic masterpiece Demon first premiered to great acclaim in 1871. Although performed frequently in Russia, the work remains something of a rarity in the West today.
Based on the renowned fantasy poem by Mikhail Lermontov, Demon boasts rich choral writing and a fiery libretto. The work vividly depicts the isolation and despair of a fallen angel doomed to eternal damnation. All is upended by a chance encounter with the princess Tamara with whom he falls desperately in love. Tamara’s attempts to resist him and her eventual submission end in tragedy.
The 2018 Summerscape production will be conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by the renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger with sets by Paul Tate dePoo and costumes by Kaye Voyce. An all-Russian cast will be led by the sparkling-voiced soprano Olga Tolkmit (last seen at Bard in Dimitrij) in the role of Tamara alongside baritone Efim Zavalny in his American debut in the title role.
Opening Night Reception for Members
Friday, July 27
Opera Talk with Leon Botstein
Sunday, July 29 at noon
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July 29, 2018 at 2 pm
August 1, 2018 at 2 pm
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