|Pavel Suliandziga, Andrey Valentii, Alexander Nesterenko, Olga Tolkmit, Maestro Leon Botstein, Efim Zavalny, Nadezhda Babintseva, Ekaterina Egorova, and Yakov Strizhak
The highest praise we can heap on the Bard SummerScape production of Anton Rubinstein's 1871 opera Demon is that it was worth the four hour bus trip from Manhattan in a driving rain. (It was only two hours returning). What a rare opportunity to see a stunning production of an opera that has achieved its success on native soil but has rarely been seen in the USA.
Maestro Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a fine reading of Rubinstein's highly accessible score, one marked by exotic Eastern modes and tantalizing tunes some of which reminded us of Borodin. The presence of The Pesvebi Georgian Dancers, choreographed by Shorena Barbakadze, added color and action to the somewhat static story. Black clad male dancers exhibited consummate athleticism whilst the women, dressed in white with cherry red veils, delighted the eye with their grace.
Pavel Viskovatov's libretto was based upon a poem by Mikhail Lermontov and we found it repetitive and not terribly interesting. The Demon, a fallen angel, falls for the beautiful Princess Tamara, makes sure that his rival Prince Sinodal gets killed, and pursues Tamara until she relents. She dies.
It took some doing to get this opera past the censors since it was considered sacrilegious. To a modern audience, a rebellious anti-hero who wants freedom and passion more than spiritual peace is not at all strange.
As portrayed by baritone Efim Zavalny, this Demon, a fallen angel, is sexy as all get-out, with a commanding presence adding to his burnished baritone. No wonder that the lovely Princess Tamara, performed by the diminutive soprano Olga Tolkmit, cannot resist his importuning. His supernatural powers seemed unnecessary!
The third and final act comprises the Demon's triumphing over the Angel (rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Nadezhda) for Tamara's love. Gorgeous melodies are exchanged by the two lovers as the Princess, opening up her slender focused soprano, can no longer resist. (Who could???) Subsequently, the Angel gets her moment of triumph as she saves Tamara's soul.
It occurred to us that the theme of spiritually challenged men requiring saving by the pure love of an innocent maiden is a rather common theme in opera, i.e. Der Fliegende Holländer and Faust. Of course, the woman gives up her life in the ultimate sacrifice. Lest we consign this theme to the 19th c., just think of some contemporary films with the same theme! There will always be women who want to save "bad boys". Still, we find nothing so terrible in those who prefer love and freedom to blind obedience and the promise of peaceful paradise.
All of the voices matched the excellence of the leads. There is nothing like a Russian bass, and Andrey Valentii's performance of the role of Prince Gudal (Tamara's father) was powerful and convincing.
Poor Prince Sinodal, sung by tenor Alexander Nesterenko, gets killed off at the end of Act I, but not until he thrilled us with a sad lament. But he was not the only tenor onstage. As they say, there are no small roles, and tenor Pavel Suliandziga, a rising star if ever we heard one, sang with lustrous pure tone and lovely phrasing in the role of the Messenger.
Yakov Strizhak impressed us with his fine bass and convincing portrayal of the Old Servant to Prince Sinodal, coming across more like a loyal friend. The role of Nanny was performed by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Egorova, appearing more like a Mother Superior in the convent.
With such a bare bones story, it falls to the Director to flesh out the tale with character development and this was well accomplished by Thaddeus Strassberger. Setting Act I in the same convent to which Tamara flees at the end of Act II served to emphasize her innocence.
Act II was lively and colorful as Tamara awaited her groom. Amid the singing and dancing he arrived--on a funeral bier.
The Demon's power over women was signaled by his affecting the dreams of the sleeping postulates of the convent as he wandered from cell to cell in Act III.
Paul Tate dePoo III's set design was magnificent. A series of arched elements were illuminated by JAX Messenger's Lighting Design and Greg Emetaz' Video Design. We loved the projection that looked like stained glass with images of angels and devils. Kaye Voyce's costumes for the wedding scene were opulent with Tamara's wedding dress a source of bridal envy.
Chorus Master James Bagwell pulled an excellent performance from the Bard Festival Chorale.
There will be four more performances and we encourage your attendance if tickets are available.
(c) meche kroop