Rimsky-Korsakov is the focus of the 2018 edition of the Bard Music Festival, but the organizers didn’t pick one of his works for the traditional fully-staged operatic preamble. Instead, they selected the little known The Demon by Rimsky’s older contemporary, Anton Rubinstein. For decades, Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra have specialized in reviving musical works they believe are unduly neglected. Obviously, true “discoveries” are rare. Many scores have been relegated to the footnotes of art history for good reasons, not just due to changes in taste. But there are still many meritorious works that can be occasionally brought forward for the enjoyment of that part of the public tired to attend performances of the same operas repeated again and again.

Efim Zavalny (The Demon) © Stephanie Berger
Efim Zavalny (The Demon)
© Stephanie Berger

Bard's presentation leaves little doubt that Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon deserves to be better known. The libretto is a typical Romantic one, based on poem by Mikhail Lermontov about a fallen angel trying to unsuccessfully redeem himself through his love for a Georgian princess. He kills his rival and relentlessly pursues the princess Tamara even to the monastery where she is trying to take refuge. When he seems to have overcome all her fears, she abruptly dies. The Demon goes back to his Flying-Dutchman-like, eternity-long wanderings. Depicted conflicts between faith and love, real and imagined, filial duty and the need for independence are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

The Demon (1875) is only one of Rubinstein's twenty-something operas! He was certainly no musical revolutionary and had no desire to promote Russian folklore as Rimsky-Korsakov and the other members of the Group of Five did so successfully. Rubinstein's interest lay in Gounod and Western European music, his non-nationalistic views are probably the main reasons for his oeuvre moving out of the limelight.

Olga Tolkmit (Tamara) © Stephanie Berger
Olga Tolkmit (Tamara)
© Stephanie Berger

Without being especially imaginative or colorful, the score is melodious and full of warmth. Instrumental combinations demonstrate the composer’s keen ear for ensemble. Several purely orchestral intermezzos had a remarkable intensity. The ASO’s instrumentalists, constantly asked to learn new scores, acquitted themselves well, but without causing many sparks to fly. As in many other Russian operas, the chorus is essential to a good performance. Commenting on the events taking place, the members of the Bard Festival Chorale (prepared by James Bagwell) represented, at different times, spirits from Heaven or Hell, Tatars or maidens. They hurdled all barriers (including the linguistic barrier) with gusto.

All the principals were native Russian speakers, a great advantage. In the role of the Byronic anti-hero, baritone Efim Zavalny used his malleable but not especially penetrative bass-baritone to a portray a Demon more desperate than cunning, furtively moving in the shadows rather than throwing around mighty lightning bolts. His first act invocation, “Child, in your embraces I shall be resurrected into a new life”, was sung with emotion and noteworthy legato. Soprano Olga Tolkmit (the tormented Tamara) displayed a powerful but quite uneven instrument.

Olga Tolkmit (Tamara) and ensemble © Stephanie Berger
Olga Tolkmit (Tamara) and ensemble
© Stephanie Berger

Secondary characters were even better cast. Nadezhda Babintseva, in the role of the Angel competing with the Demon for Tamara’s soul, is a secure mezzo-soprano with a beautiful sense of phrasing. Alexander Nesterenko showed Heldentenor qualities in the too brief role of Sinodal, the murdered bridegroom-to-be. Bass Andrey Valentii, with his resonant bass, was a reassuring presence as Prince Gudal. His second act duet with his daughter Tamara was one of the evening’s highlights. Tenor Pavel Suliandziga showed real promise in the cameo role of the Messenger. Yakov Strizhak (The Old Servant) was another notable presence.

Invited again to direct at Bard’s Fischer Center for Performing Arts, Thaddeus Strassberger proposed a mise-en-scène where the story is re-enacted in Tamara’s confused mind while she is confined in a monastery. The scenery (Paul Tate dePoo III) consists of a series of receding grey arcs enlivened by Greg Emetaz’s video design depicting, at different times, heavy rain, colorful religious frescoes or a pastoral landscape in the far back. A row of cells with silent, peaceful or troubled nuns is pulled in and out the stage. The crowded wedding scene is brightened up not only by a beautiful Caucasian batik-like ceiling and Kaye Voyce’s costumes but also by the presence of the Pesvebi Georgian Dancers. Shorena Barbakadze’s choreography, combining men’s athleticism and women’s delicateness, emphasized a rare Oriental-influenced segment in Rubinstein’s score. A most worthwhile evening that had us all speculating what Botstein’s operatic selection might be next year.