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S & H International Opera Review

Rubinstein, Le Démon, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, January 22, 2003 (FC)


January 22, 2003 is a day that could live in opera history as marking the return to the stage of a forgotten Russian opera masterpiece. I am just one of a cadre of music lovers who scrape their faces, bind their necks with brightly colored fabric and go out into the dark night in tireless search of opera unjustly neglected. More often than not, to our dismay, we find that the neglected or forgotten opera fully deserves its obscurity. I am pleased to report that Le Dèmon is not one of them. It is a splendidly crafted work with compelling music set to a classic story told with rousing passion. It clearly, on first hearing, deserving of a place in the repertory of the world's opera houses and Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater team deserve kudos for this high-visibility restoration on a major stage.

Anton Rubinstein is better known as a late 19th Century piano superstar and the teacher of Tchaikovsky that as a composer but his output includes six symphonies, five piano concertos and seventeen operas. Of the latter, only the 1875 Dèmon had wide success and was frequently performed in Russia up to the turn of the century. Based on a fantasy poem by Lermontov, it tells the story of a women who, on her bridal eve, is spotted by the devil who, of course, is instantly smitten. Dispatching the groom, he appears instead to claim the prize but is recognized as a force of darkness - by the music if nothing else. The bride seeks refuge in a nunnery but is found there by the demon that, heedless of warnings, begins a seduction. Touched by the story of the mysterious apparition, she consents to the kiss, which proves fatal. The woman is redeemed in Heaven by the forces of good and the stranger resumes his eternal quest. This plot, a love between a mortal and an immortal, has faithfully served the cause of opera from Monteverdi to Berg's Lulu and this particular treatment is masterfully done.

As the fatally attracted Tamara, famed soprano Marina Mescheriakova was triumphant in the role. Her voice has developed added body recently and her new powerhouse soprano easily cut through the often-thick orchestration. She has not lost her ability to float a fine piano note, however, and this role fits her voice like a glove. Almost as impressive is young (29 year old) Russian baritone Yevgeny Nikitin as the Demon. This could be one of the most attractive roles in the baritone repertory and the formidable Nikitin has all the equipment to make the most of the role. Secure in all ranges and of very attractive tone, he is clearly a major new vocal talent. His singing was always attractive, but his character was somewhat generically delivered. One wonders where two famed operatic devils of recent memory, Josè Van Dam or Samuel Ramey, would have taken this role. The other roles were well sung, including a special mention of the father of the bride, Prince Goudal, which was sung with great feeling by Guennady Bezzoubenkov and the fine contribution of tenor Ilya Levinsky as the bridegroom, Prince Sinodal. The chorus of the Mariinsky was superb and the conducting of Gergiev was passionate and obviously committed to this music. The orchestra played with vigor and intensity.

The Russian stage veteran Lev Dodine staged this production but this was not one of his most successful. The production was not seamless - literally. A few times, from my seat center orchestra, I could see separations where the parts of the set should have met and sometimes there were several inches separating them - details one assumes which will be sorted out as the run progresses. The simple framing of the story with oriental carpets thrown over the walls to add color was not often attractive. The staging of the bridal scene had the chorus standing stiffly in rows in boxes on stage and this had little to do with the swirling drama on stage. The costumes, by Chloè Obolensky were in the traditional mould and the tossed carpets serving as decor were courtesy of David Borovsky.

But these quibbles should not obscure the overall strong impact Rubinstein's opera has in the theater. This work is "modern" in the sense that the composer was clearly following with interest the innovations of Wagner. His skill in making music and theater work together is evident throughout the opera. The duet up to the fatal kiss, to cite but one example, is compelling constructed and the music is exhilaratingly passionate. The opera has very few set piece arias and the drama flows in large tableaux - not interrupted by ball scenes and the like. He was far too connected with the international music scene to write in the "nationalist" style but this work is unmistakably Russian in spirit.

This opera is playing in Paris through February 3 and will be broadcast by France Musiques (also accessible on the Internet) on March 1. The program announces also that the last three performances will be videotaped and this usually means a DVD is in the works for later in the year. The production is created jointly with the Mariinsky Theater and will soon be a part of the opera season in St. Petersburg.

Frank Cadenhead

Evgeny Nikitin in the title role and MarinaMescheriakova as Tamara.
Photo credit: M-N Robert.

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