There were times when Anton Rubinstein’s operas were admired and staged all over Europe. Former triumphs made place for total disinterest during the interbellum when new favorites replaced the romantic dramas of the Russian composer. Nowadays, the European public doesn’t know the musical legacy of this virtuoso pianist and founder of the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg well enough to ensure his place in a list with the most popular opera composers. The Belgium première of The Demon (1871) can change this situation as the opera answers the most demanding expectations: glowing, romantic music, countless possibilities for soloists to demonstrate their vocal and dramatic talents, impressive choirs and a far from ordinary plot about obsessive love of a demon. A happy ending is also out of question as the elimination of the Demon’s rival and his willingness to make peace with heaven still guarantees no happiness.

Veronika Dzhioeva © A Bolkvadze
Veronika Dzhioeva
© A Bolkvadze

Based on a Byronic poem by Michail Lermontov (1814-1841), this lyric opera has a philosophical and spiritual background. But it is not the implacable opposition of Angel and Demon or the antagonistic choirs of spirits of hell and those from heaven that make it so impressive and enthralling. The beautiful lyrics of Lermontov’s poem and the melodical rythme and romantic spirit of his poetry inspired Rubinstein to the most splendid and passionate melodies, full of heartfelt emotions. The excellent La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and its Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov must have surely enjoyed every page of Rubinstein’s score just as the audience enjoyed every moment of his music. Nervous, agitated, dark or heavenly light ariosos, recitatives and choruses formed a concatenation of operatic highlights. The chorus sparkled with a refined Down to the bright Aragvi and a thrilling Night time. It was the task of choristers to comment on the dramatic events, acting as evil spirits, angels, servants in the caravan of Prince Sinodal, night robbers in the mountain pass, marriage guests and convent nuns. The concert performance of the opera made it possible to take advantage of the possibilities afforded by the hall in BOZAR. The chorus was devided in three groups and placed besides on stage, also on balconies, creating a special sound effect of double choir facing each other.

The Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas also took advantage of the hall and caused some agitation in the audience, suddently appearing between the rows. His Demon showed little resemblance with the all-powerful and emotioneless spirit of hell. Vocally strong and convincing, Smoriginas was also able to explore the dramatical depths of his character and depict the emotional suffering of this tormented soul. Here was a lonely soul, bored and despising the ‘accursed world’ with nobody to love and to be loved by. The dreams of a new beginning with Tamara, crushed after her death, caused the final damnation for the whole world and its creator.

South Ossetian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva was endlessly charming as beautiful, sincere and devout Tamara. She colored her wonderfully light but nevertheless strong and dynamic voice with all possible emotional range, making it sound wistful and anxious, affectionate and dreamy.

The fatal love of the Demon and Tamara has devastating consequences not only for the main characters but for everybody in their immediate vicinity. The vocal part of Tamara’s old broken-hearted father Prince Gudal might have been written specially for the experessive and flexible bass of Ante Jerkunica. And what a fullness and range of colours the bass Alexander Vassiliev brought in his much-too-short part of the Old servant! The outstanding gallery of low registered voices in this production would not be complete without the dark mezzo of Elena Manistina as Tamara’s Nurse and the deep voluminous mezzo of Christianne Stotijn. In her role of Angel she showed herself as formidable opponent of Demon. Tenor Boris Rudak had also his star moments with two poetical ariosos Turning into a falcon and In the dark of the night.

This emotionally intense and impressively sung performance has given this unfairly forgotten music a new chance to make its reentry onto the European stage. Without this once so influantial musical drama, music lovers have no complete picture of the 19th century’s Russian opera and the musical inspirations for Tchaikovsky’s more fortuned Yevgeny Onegin and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. In 2016, it seems wrong to be hidebound by the 1911 Paris reviews which told the public how anachronistic this opera was. With all these melodic treasures hidden for ages due to a controversial plot and high romantic, unfashionable pathos, the old-fashioned romanticism and the inflaming passions of Anton Rubinstein’s heroes are very welcome.

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