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The Demon
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 7:23 pm - The Demon
I saw Anton Rubinsteinís The Demon at the Kirov month long mini-season of opera repertory July 15th on a wonderfully cool summer night. The audience was full, one heard a lot of Russian; the opera itself was one of those one of a kind spectacles opera lovers travel thousands of miles to experience.
Opera is often like a religion without beliefs but with plenty of opaque if not mischievous pagan gods; if one is a zealot one makes sacred trips anywhere to be in the sacred presence of the itinerant divine. Certainly The Demon is one of those operas that give both the believers and infidels in the audience that uncanny experience.
Though it was a last minute addition to the Kirov season it was astounding as any of its other productions. Itís a staple and a chestnut in Russia. Everybody in this show sang from memory except one of the minor characters; it wasnít like some recondite Strauss opera where the cast is half prepared after one run through, reading their part in the score from the page. Apparently some opera producers feel this stunning work like some wines and political prisoners can't travel. It certainly knocked everybody out this evening in New York; maybe it wouldnít seem as good in Tierra del Fuego.
Though billed as a concert performance, one saw everything on this night but sets; the production was more like an opera fully staged if sometimes in modern dress on an invisible but fantastical stage. Half the cast were in exotic costume. The singers got into the dramas one has to if one wants to sing at all persuasively, were all over the stage, acting and moving with blocking in a sumptuous but ineluctable set woven from an inner imagination.
The grand romantic character of Rubinsteinís searing and highly emotional score demanded nothing less than that kind of involvement. You can't be detached from this piece and present it flatly to jades and conservatory students as abstract musical discourse.
Itís an opera out to grab you by the throat in an alley as well as to invite one to think; one has to be totally there whether one is on the stage or in the shadows of an audience when such powerful and even dangerous works are abroad.
ďMephistofole in Russian,Ē remarked one of the familiar of the Family Circle after the last tragic chord. Like me he had drifted down to a few empty side seats of the orchestra for the bulk of the performance. His entourage of opera zealots agreed with his bon mot. Itís both an accurate bit of wit and high praise. Bolitoís great but previously almost never heard in New York till the 1970s, Mephistofole, was not only the extravagant hit of the New York State Opera here for twenty years but launched both the late Norman Triegle and the legendary Sam Ramey as stars. The Demon not only tells the same story essentially but has such a part for a mega-star, this night done stunningly by a great bass baritone, Yevgeny Nikitin.
Itís a great part; Nikitin brings to it a voice that is smooth and yet can bring down the house in more than two octaves, larger than life romantic acting skills, good looks, a big shouldered rangy body and the solid physique of a football player, along with the total focus a great singing actor must have.
Somebody in the lobby mentioned The Demon had once been a spectacular showpiece for Chaliapin. Chaliapin had recorded a few choice excerpts from this masterpiece. One could not help but think of Chaliapin when one heard and saw Nikitin, heard his iron yet sumptuous voice, admired his effortless singing with no flaw in his great range of sound, watched him project a heroic physical presence that magnetized the eyes as well as the ears. Nikitin gives off the sense of casual power along with a large palette of veiled compassionate emotion that comes from a great singing actor; his voice a suave and powerful high range somewhat like Bryn Terfel that seems smooth and easily escheated up into F and G above the staff, maybe higher. The virtuosity of his voice is always in the service of presenting the character; it isnít any the less sensational for its psychological focus.
One could imagine Nikitin excelling in the same repertory as Bryn Terfel from Don Giovanni to Falstaff. I didnít see Sam Ramey in the audience; if he were there, he must have been even asking himself why he hadnít insisted on doing The Demon here.
The opera directors can't say nobody in town sings in Russian anymore. After one hears somebody like Nikitin do it, one realizes along with Mephistofole and Don Giovanni itís one of every baritoneís dream roles. The daemonic protagonist overwhelms, dazzles, yet is a character adorned at the same time with philosophy and reflection as well as primal emotion. If some composer is generous and talented enough to write such a part, singing actors want to be offering it the way none-singing actors of ambition all want to do Hamlet.
Although all the cast in this Kirov production were stunning, the Tamara of the dark blonde, lovely and voluptuous Marina Mescheriakova was rich and bountiful in voice as well as physical beauty; her duets with Niktin were electric and rended the heart at least partially because both of them were always exceptionally good looking; they could project their parts very well visually.
Tamara is a rather more interesting character than Marguerite. She has had a mature emotional if not carnal intimacy with both her father and her betrothed, Prince Sinodai, a tenor part played cunningly with muted pathos by the elegant and heroic Yevgeny Akimov.
We see Tamara on very easy and intimate terms with her father, a minor part done with fluid dignity by one of the several Kirov basso stars, Gennady Bezubenkov. Mythically we see Tamara before she meets the Demon as a woman capable of giving the protagonist the feminine consolations he desires. Her name, taken form the amusing Bible story of a woman who closes two husband and surreptitiously sleeps with their father, emphasizes that talent at the maligns of our consciousness. Tamara has already been a passing feminine redeemer of sorts in this opera with her father and fiancť.
She is a much more mature potential mate than the hapless, virginal and uninteresting Marguerite of Goethe. Tamara combines the qualities of Margaret and Helen for Lermontov and Rubinstein much as the Demon is much more formidable and intriguing as a volatile mix of Faust and Mephistopheles. Of course Goethe had been writing a high comedy; his Gretchen is supposed to be a trivial village gewgaw.
Faust is a fool to injure her as well as a villain. No Faust in opera including The Demon has ever been other than tragic. If comedy needs fools and gulls, tragedy must have characters worthy of our pity and terror.
Unlike the Met or the now ineptly named New York State Opera, which most of us veteran acolytes of the few Olympuses of the musically divine still call the City Opera, the Kirov has other purposes besides personality cults of singers. We have gaudy spas in which singers are featured in operas sometimes chestnuts or simply competent hackwork like Andrea Chenier, the Kirov is a true ensemble company with major singers acting in minor roles that fit them night after night.
One saw the great Yevgeny Nikitin plying an unimportant troubadour in The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh the evening after he did The Demon. This company definitely features a group effort and lateral adhesions rather than spectacles of sheer singing from imported stars. One might attribute it to the influence of Communism; I would suspect it has more to do with the nature of Russian culture.
It has after all a great operatic tradition and run of masterpieces aiming for the highest Aeschylean intents for Russian consciousness as the United States does not have even one such opera or even musical comedy. We have Treemonisha, Porgy and Bess and The Mother Of Us All as Ibsenite opera, not much more, all of them less than epic affairs. Such high purposes are worth a group effort from anyone.
This means that in America if Placido Domingo says he wants to do the lead in La Juive, James Levine wants to conduct Moses und Aron, Atlantide or Benvenuto Cellini, or Sam Ramey decides itís time to feature his basso genius in Robert Le Diable or Enescuís great but still unknown Oedipe, as a consequence of the personal inquiry into the frontiers of their individual talents of great musicians it gets done.
The Kirov does operas because in a direct way they illuminate the national life of Russia. Whether we have a national life to ponder upon other than a passion to consume hamburgers or not, our opera hoses consistently commission works that don't address our culture seriously, offering achromatic and dutiful affairs like tedious Episcopal wine and cheese revels by half dead composers who have neither the intent nor the talent as they bask with a headache in the American Elysian Fields on tenure. Luckily or unluckily they are sheathed from the worst of life with copious health benefits, to fashion their monuments to boredom.
Valery Gergiev conducted The Demon a little faster than the two recordings one might be familiar with if one had a taste for Russian music; he emphasized the symphonic architecture of a score that aims from the first tutti to present a logical musical discourse.
Taking this tack means one wasnít asked to accept the opera as a series of strung together great episodes such as one feels often about even the best spectacles of this sort; one came away from Gergievís choices with a sense one had been offered a coherent argument in extended time both musically as well as in the operaís rather ethically centered metaphysical philosophy.
If one can be simultaneous amused in the French manner by Gounoudís Faust and write it off as a box of liqueur filled bonbons posing for the unwary as local ambrosia in a divine feast.
The other Fausts, Berliozís Boitoís, Busoniís, even kissing cousins like the Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, even Belphagor of Respighi, work in a primal way on the sense of the opera-goers that they have been ruptured from an ideal father figure the spectacle personified as God by maturity won at the expense of acts of satanic pride, will and industry.
Yet these neutral qualities make them adults, that they can achieve succor from their own infernal virtues with what Goethe called the eternal feminine, the female principle of nurturing whom some real woman represents, a masked manifestation of the redemptive and consoling power of the deal mother.
Beyond acknowledging our ambivalence about mature life or even the existence of life at an y level of freedom or power, itís a view of sex and courtship considerably less trivial than our own timeís shallow view of erotica as a scientific performance slightly less brainless notion that sex is like hydrolysis.
Itís as well more immediately intriguing than the ancient notion of an aery courtliness or the passing guerdon of a sack of a city for a leather-girt warrior on horseback.
Romantic mythology is a psychological language that in many ways superior to the so-called science of human inner life fashionable in the subsequent century if formulated by Marx and Freud in Rubinsteinís lifetime. Nobody has yet carved a lapidary and accurate science out of interest, mechanics, and all the other paraphernalia of arthropod-like 20th century presumptions about human thought and action.
Obviously Marxian notions of interest and Lockean tabula rosa faiths didnít help socialist states understand their populace either, much less contort them. As little as one might think of Byronic or Faustian language of the 19th century as a science, it can't be any worse at identification and prediction of human behavior and its motivations than their supposedly tough minded successors.
Moreover, 19th century Byronism makes for better opera. Mere insect-like interest and mechanics is boring in the theatre as watching the innards of a Model T engine. We knew in our hearts we can't explain human character by theories of interest. We might as well be amused in our ignorance.
If we think we know what we donít know, every species in Creation is more wise than we are. Sometimes we donít know when we are in decline even as scientists because intellectual degeneracy is presented to us by its pitchmen as a fashionably progressive science. Only later in our dotage do we discover that we have been led not toward truth by experts but away from it.
Rubinstein more than Boito recognized that even in this 19th century mythic language of the soul, Faust is a self-pitying bore or perilously close to one; yet only Rubinstein, following Lermontovís poem, combined Faust and Mephistopheles into one character.
Goethe had said himself he always was one; Faust and Mephistopheles, the spirit of search and denial, really lack in Goetheís darkly comedic drama their real antagonist, God, except for Goetheís Prologue Boito and Rubinstein wisely had included. Boito and Rubinstein knew that if they could have the real antagonist of Mephistopheles they could dispense with the more shadowy and empty Faust; yet only Lermontov, then Rubinstein, gave his Byronic hero an angel with whom to dispute high matters on roughly equal tears.
One should say that bother Pushkin and Lermontov, the latter known to us if at all as the author of A Hero Of Our Time, were avid disciples of Byron. In Byronís various dramas, Manfred for example, one sees how the English lordly genius combined human and demonic elements to design aa character that was an amalgamation of earthly and divine elements much as many human beings feel they are, ďa little lower than the angelsĒ.
The point of this colorful mythology about a life form ďmade in Godís imageĒ as the Bible says is to cloth the perception of our adult human life in its proper inner sheath of ambivalence and motley nature, our profound and inconsistent take on our will and real power we all both critique and live by. In this way all these Faustian operas including The Demon work on catalyzing the audience to clarify their private and sometimes not entirely clear illuminations about the curve and nature of their mortality.
This ambivalence, its tactical division of protagonist and antagonist in many of our human dramas long before Sophocles, is probably built into the most shallow and tawdry plots as well as the fulcrum of such subtle works as that Hellenic masterís Antigone. One should after seeing The Demon feel purged and cleansed in a deep way because the myth and the music works on the human heart to share a common dilemma of life and death that is within every spirit.
It probably is a celestial quandary built into life on the bacterial level on planets unknown to us. To paraphrase Poe who said something like: ďMy terrors arenít imported from Germany; they are the terror of the soul.Ē
The Demon aims at that kind of ultimate ontological depth. The whole point of the Demonís consolation to Tamara when she wails of her lost betrothed is that, as Leopardi says elsewhere of the dead, the unliving elements of the universe are not joyous but they arenít unhappy either.
As in the best of operas like Don Giovanni and even Don Carlo, The Demon has a plot that resolved beautifully as a Euclidean axiom. When the Demon tries to seduce Tamara, she says quite honestly and sensibly that she is very attracted to him; she asks for charity from him because his passion will injure her. Charity and mercy are qualities the Demon lacks. He offers to renounce wickedness and adore God is she will accept him.
It turns out that isnít the issue. Itís whether or not he has or can show moral qualifiers beyond vanity that is the fulcrum of the story. When an angel claims he ha no right to her, the Demon says the angel has no right to deter him: ďShe is mineĒ, that is, his property with his power and genius to do with as he pleases, not the stolid franchise of heaven. Yet heaven is not claiming ownership of Tamara, it is compassionately protecting her from harm.
Tamaraís ultimate destiny is not a concern of the Demon. He promises her immortality, rule of the world and so on as though these virtues had done him good or lessened or alleviated his own misery.
In America in the 1950s the Demon would have offered Tamara a ring, a house in the suburbs and himself as a corporate meal ticket for access at his whim to her formidable carnal consolations. In some indirect way this opera is dealing with a dark side of ordinary male sensuality. Rubinstein is counting on the knowledge of his audience that at some point the Demon will infallibly break his vow when he is sated and tired of Tamara as Faust did to the much more trivial Marguerite and Don Giovanni did once internationally to thousands of lovers.
Rubinstein assumes that his public, acquainted with other vanities of the myth can use his neo-classical version of it as a kind of referential shorthand to take up a much more expansive inquiry into male and female human psychology.
The Demon is not a being ruled by compulsions like Faust and Don Giovanni; he is in his midnight way an august philosopher. More like Busoniís Doktor Faust, Rubinsteinís source for his libretto, Lermontov, takes up this impersonal nature of the unliving energy and mass in the cosmos with a philosophic fearlessness the plot doesn't bother to conceal.
Since we donít hear of any of the composersí fifteen other operas, one might surmise if on little or no evidence that the theme of what lay beyond the margins of conventional life appealed to Rubinstein particularly as much as it did to Liszt with his similar attendant life as a resident genius alien and pedagogue to other benign monsters like himself.
There some to be something very personal in the music of this opera one doesn't find in Rubinsteinís much more measured and urbane instrumental music.
Rubinstein was after all one of the words great traveling pianists; he was most of his life a peripatetic in worlds and cultures that had nothing to do with his Ukrainian Jewish upbringing, with powers as one of the greatest pianists and composers of his time his life and character on this planet was not without analogue to the vast magical puissance of the Demon.
As things stand, Rubinstein gave us at least once great symphony, the Ocean, two great piano concertos, the fourth and fifth, the latter better than anything of Saint Seans, the second best cello concerto after Dvorakís, a great tone poem, Don Quixote, along with, to the consternation of many explorers of digital arcana, oodles of lesser salon piano music that aims at and succeeds in giving us a mere passing urbanity, haply a negligible libation to oblivion. Among his pupils were Tchaikovsky and Josef Hoffman.
Itís an achievement that, if we are selective, since like Liszt he never tempered his facility and wrote much too much, offers us riches that outdo many a composer of less talent we admire more easily in our time. This genius had a range of wildness when he needed it, yet an almost French measure that spiced his romantic Byronism.
He had the easy gift of melody as well as the power to extend musical discourse with intelligence. Yet, to our loss, he really is not known much as an original creative spirit outside of Russia.
The major talent of Anton Rubinstein and the sometimes Verdi-like or Wagner-like drama of The Demon are gifts to us from a place that is no longer that far away. Since rockets to other plaints are not yet commercial we have to be thankful to the Kirov for giving us access to the some of the values and achievements of a great culture most of us would be enriched by but donít know very well or at all.
Rubinsteinís music is not only very beautiful; it makes full use of the musical length of his time to enhance philosophic inquiry in a theatre. Now that the musical battles of the 19th century are long over might it be acceptable in a former aesthetic war zone to note that The Demon like the masterpieces of the Five has large nationalistic elements, is set in the Steppes, uses some of the same popular sources for music as Mussorsky: idiosyncratic Russian folk song and its heartfelt sacred music?
Dare one say in another season that the fear of the alien, infidel, a muted humanism and a kind of fatalistic credo in the hidden purposes of God are as central to The Demon as they are to Khovanshchina?
Rubinstein is over the top when he wants to be; he is never quite as scandalously brilliant and iconoclastic as his pupil Tchaikovsky or his apparent foe, Mussorsky; a virtuoso with every option to be a dazzler, he had a side to his character that honored history in an eclectic way that seemed to revolutionaries to put him on the wrong ethical side of ever populist progressive cause of his time and later.
Itís silly. If any of this were true he wouldnít have written in the measured populist language he did and honed the talents of the great pupils of genius he had.
Rubinstein went in a less radical way at adorning his national culture just as the Five had done. Itís a high intent by many that seems to be alien to us in the United States. History and culture in America are too often perceived as what fashionable mendacities and pious odiums perished authorities have offered us as a dark guerdon.
Until we value measure and honor the past again with some evenhanded scrutiny we arenít likely to give Anton Rubinstein his due; we have a taste for trivia we donít associate with salon music, a genre which placed the unimportant in an implied metaphysical context. We have equally a venomous hunger for freedom from measure we donít easily relate to those who embrace it as a virtue from Haydn to Rubinstein. We buy into the Wagnerian notion that excess is courage.
As long as we adore shallow fashion and find virtue in a comfortable tedium weíve liable to forget about Anton and find ourself meditating rather soberly on Helena Rubinstein.
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