Anton Rubinstein: Демон/The Demon (1875)

Opera in prologue, three acts, and epilogue (performed in seven tableaux). Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes (14 minute ballet cut).

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This review is a request, although why I did not review it sooner is my own fault.

Yeah I know. These operas just keep getting darker and darker. First Rusalka, then Parisina, then Iris, now The Demon. I really don’t know if I am going to come up on the other end at some point! This month has just been so depressing. Maybe I should just take a break for a while.

This is based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov which had been banned by the Russian government in 1860. In 1871 Rubinstein performed the work privately for various Russian composers (including Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui), who panned it (although themes from this opera show up in modified form in both Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin). It would become the most performed opera in Russia (second only to the regular season opener: A Life for the Tsar by Glinka). It was also performed at Covent Garden in 1881. When the opera was finally performed in Paris in 1911, after well over 100 performances in Russia, it was dismissed as old fashioned. To some extent this is true, the score has a mid-19th century sound world.

SETTING: Georgia, time unspecified although seemingly medieval. The plot is rather simple if a little Dutchman-ish: the Demon (bass-baritone) is called upon by the powers of darkness to destroy the beauty of divine creation. An Angel (contralto) warns him, but he decides that his next victim will be the Princess Tamara (soprano), the daughter of Prince Gudal (bass), who is engaged to a Prince Sinodal (tenor) whom the Demon has killed in an ambush by Tatars. The body of the prince is presented to his bride in fulfillment of his dying wish and Tamara retires to a convent, but the Demon follows her, thinking that her love will redeem him from the loneliness he has endured for millennia.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (56 minutes)

Scene 1: A wild place in the Caucasus Mountains.

0: The prelude and opening choral storm are taken as a single unit and rather stunning ***. We start off in the midst of the storm (resembling a combination of Weber and Wagner) Through the storm the infernal chorus calls for the Demon. They encounter a heavenly choir which fights back (and seems to win), and then an earthly chorus representing nature to a good rousing finish. Although not up to Iris level, it makes for an impressive five-minute opener.

7: The rest of the scene is taken by a monologue for the Demon (not so interest) and his dialogue with an Angel who begs him to reconcile with God (this is much better) **.

Scene 2: By a river near the castle of Prince Gudal.

12, 21, 25: Georgian maidens await Princess Tamara who comes on to some sweet coloratura bel canto cooing which starts to border on parody *. She playfully teases them. The Demon is heard in the distance as he gazes at Tamara and falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Tamara starts to worry about how her betrothed has yet to arrive. Her nurse tries to dispel her fears in a mildly agreeable number. Tamara goes into yet another happy bit before the Demon continues his highly amorous invisible pursuit of her *, declaring that he can make her Queen of the Universe should she but love him. The women think Tamara has gone mad and they all decide to return to the castle to a reprisal of their chorus *, but Tamara has the last word.

Scene 3: A cavern in the mountains.

27: A slightly stereotypical interlude as the caravan of Prince Sinodal comes on *. The Servant of the Prince comes on revealing that the caravan was not the best (apparently it is very slow). A messenger is sent to Prince Gudal to inform Tamara that her groom will arrive by midday the following day.

31: Prince Sinodal comes on and has a sweet and mild cavatina * in which he fantasizes that he is a falcon so that he might fly to Tamara immediately. A little dreamy, but you can tell the tenor is waiting at the end for an applause point that never comes. His men want to drink and they cheer the Prince and his future Princess, but the Servant tells them not to shout, but rather to go and pray at a nearby chapel. He tells the Prince that he must pray, they are in an evil place, but for some reason they must also rest for the night because the sun is going down.

39: The men sing a song about the night * before retiring.

43: Prince Sinodal tells the wind how much he loves Princess Tamara *, then he addresses her directly, or rather a vision of her. This gets rather gooey, even he acknowledges this before collapsing into sleep.

49: The Demon shows up and says rather bizarrely that Sinodal will never see Tamara. A whirlwind chorus of Tatars comes on and mortally wounds Prince Sinodal. Finally, something has a pulse ** even if the Prince is rapidly losing his. His last orders to the Servant are to get his body to Tamara the following day. In its own mild way, the death scene is touching, if a little slow. The act fades out.

ACT 2: The Hall of the castle of Prince Gudal decked out for the wedding. (35 minutes)

2, 5: After a frustrated entr’acte the chorus of wedding guests comes on rousingly **. A fourteen-minute long ballet ** should be here but is cut in this production. It consists of two dances, the first (very long) for men and a slightly shorter one for women in what I think is based on Georgian dances. Somewhat macabrely the messenger arrives with the news that Sinodal will arrival by noon. The messenger is given his choice of horse from the stables of Gudal and wine is poured, prompting yet another rousing chorus * (this time an oddly chromatic piece).

8: Things get a bit better when the caravan arrives and Tamara realizes that not only is she plagued by some sort of seductive demon, but also that her betrothed has been murdered **.

11, 14: Tamara seems to lose it as a result of this revelation, at once telling the Prince to awaken and then for her to be buried with him ***. A climatic ensemble ensues as Tamara mourns her lost love ***. The light of the sun has gone out. The Demon arrives, continuing his promises. Tamara loses it, at first trying to find where the voice is coming from, then collapsing out of fear. She is left alone and the Demon continues.

24: Tamara asks him who he is, and he replies in the most glorious way ***.

28: Tamara tells her father that he must entrust her to a monastery forever **. He eventually consents, but tells her that he will not rest again unless she returns. Again, the act fades out.

ACT 3: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: Night, before the monastery gates.

0: Yet another good entr’acte **, much of the same continues as we encounter the Demon in a monologue as he notices that the light in the cell of Tamara is the only one still lit, and yet another encounter with the Angel who tries to stop him from entering the monastery, but he claims by right of his love for Tamara to enter.

Scene 2: The convent cell of Tamara.

8: Monasticism has obviously given Tamara no peace **. She prays not to the saints but to the Demon, although she does not know that he is a demon obviously.

15: The Demon arrives and embarks on a passionate duet with Tamara *, although at first it really doesn’t seem so.

22: Tamara realizes what her strange voice has been all this time ***.

25: The Demon vows to swear off evil forever **.

28: The nuns are heard without singing matins and then brings up the scene *** as the Demon tries to ensnare the soul of Tamara. They kiss, she dies. The Angel returns telling him that although she is now dead, her soul belongs to God so he has no claim on her.

35: An imperious intermezzo ** as the Demon falls back into Hell.

Scene 3: Epilogue in Heaven.

36: The last three minutes of the opera are a choral epigraph for Tamara with the Angel **.

COMMENTS:

I am not really sure what to say about this opera. The opening scene is great, and the last two acts are at the very least very good. Much of the first act, however, is pallid and terribly slow. The characterizations of Tamara and the Demon are the best in the work, although the Demon has the most unmeaning music, which is a tiny bit off-putting. I can not help but feel that Prince Sinodal would be of greater interest were his music invested with more of a pulse. It could have been one of the best twenty-minute cameo roles in opera, but instead Rubinstein seems to have created nothing more than a mildly showy and melodramatic portrayal for his tenor, which feels like a bit of a waste.

The score overall is rather retro. I can see how, especially in the first two acts, the music feels about two decades older than the 1875 premiere date. The third act is a little more up to date, but only slightly. Interesting, although Rubinstein throws in a lot of gratuitous coloratura for Tamara in act one, this is mostly absent from the rest of the opera (I think there is one reoccurrence in act two and that is all). This can make the opera, or at least the first act, seem terribly dated and maudlin, even bordering on parody.

Was is just me, or is the Angel a whole lot more vicious than the Demon? An A-.

2 thoughts on “Anton Rubinstein: Демон/The Demon (1875)

  1. I really like this one. I’d even go as far and say I like it better than most of Rimskys operas. It had a significant influence on Eugene Onegin according to experts in the know.

    You want something lighter? why not Smetana’s The Two Widows.

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    1. I have finished The Devil and Kate and I have a series of happier operas all ready for release, but I have deliberately decided to go out on around a month hiatus, while I try to finish my MA thesis, on a low note.

      The Demon-Tamara duet in act 3 is the last scene of Eugene Onegin. I feel rather neutral on this one, I don’t dislike it, but I am not particularly taken with it either. But that is just my opinion. You will probably have a fit when I release Rimskys Pan Voyevoda in November (my birthday review this year). It has been ready for about a month now and it is, well, you will have to wait until November!

      I was planning on doing Hubichka at some point, probably next year, and I have heard The Two Widows before, twice. I especially like one duet for the sisters in act two and much of the tenor music. I might write this one up soon but delay release for a while.

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