Rubinstein: The Demon / Vennables: Psychosis 4:48

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as The Demon in the semi-staged performance of Rubinstein's opera, Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, February 2015.

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, May 4

Anton Rubinstein
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, until May 11

A very particular sense of tragedy attended the death, late last year, of the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, aged fifty-five. Although his diagnosis with a brain tumour early in 2015 left few grounds for hope, there was something about Hvorostovsky, both on and off the stage, that made the idea of death somehow unthinkable. On stage, whichever role he happened to be singing, his overflowing presence was the first and last thing you noticed, a quality manifest in the weight of his physical movement, the inextinguishable glint in his eye, or the grin which, however tragic his characters’ official mien, never failed to register. And of course his voice: a burnished baritone which combined seemingly inexhaustible raw power with a natural sense for phrasing. Although his characterizations were not the most subtle, his old- school charisma was such that most directors limited themselves to making a few gentle observations and left it there. Such was the directness of his contact with the audience – apparent already in the performances which won him Cardiff Singer of the Year in 1989, and in his almost annual appearances at Covent Garden following his 1992 debut in I Puritani – that everyone seemed to feel he was singing personally for them.

Although “Dima” – as almost everyone called him – officially retired from performing at the end of 2016, he couldn’t keep away from the stage, making several unexpected appearances, including the Met’s fiftieth anniversary gala last May. He gave his final stage performance a few months later at Grafenegg in Austria. Nor did he stop planning projects for the future, one of them being a production of Anton Rubinstein’s opera, The Demon (1875), conceived together with his friend Dmitry Bertman, the long-time director of Moscow’s Helikon Theatre. He performed the title role in a concert version in Moscow in 2015 but didn’t live to perform the fully-staged production which has now opened at Barcelona’s Liceu Theatre.

The absence of Hvorostovsky from the resulting show, directed by Bertman and conducted by Mikhail Tatarnikov, adds an undeniably powerful extra dramatic element to it. The title role is sung by the excellent Latvian baritone, Egils Silins, but the rest of the cast are the same as the Moscow concert. Moreover, Hartmut Schörghofer’s costumes are clearly designed around Hvorostovsky’s looks, with the Demon dressed in evening dress with gleaming white shirt and shredded velvet black tails and, inevitably, a mane of silver hair which, in the last decade or so, had become the Russian baritone’s trademark. On a deeper level, too, the absence registers because much of the opera revolves around the idea of the unseen presence and magical charisma of the Demon’s voice. Rubinstein’s opera, adapted from Lermontov’s great verse “oriental tale” of 1839, is very precisely focused on the idea of a fallen angel whose overflowing force derives not from hatred or evil but from an unconstrained (and thus unholy) desire for life in all its fullness. As he puts it in the cosmic exchange with an unfallen angel – sung here, in an inspired piece of casting, by the countertenor Yurij Mynenko, dressed as the Demon’s negative, in white tails, black shirt and long black hair – which concludes the opening scene, “I want freedom and passion, not peace”. Like a kind of amalgam of Faust and Mephistopheles, railing against the tyrannical principle of emotional containment, the Demon seems – as Hvorstovsky himself was – to be cut directly from the cloth of operatic archetype.

All of which makes it remarkable how little the opera is performed nowadays. Adapted by Pavel Alexandrovitch Viskatov, and remodelled by the composer, the libretto preserves a good deal of Lermontov’s original verse novel about a fallen angel who loves the Georgian Princess Tamara and sees to it that her betrothed, Prince Sinodal, is killed in a Tartar ambush. In her grief, Tamara retires to a convent, but the Demon gains entry and persuades her, and himself, that her love will save him and restore him to paradise. Although in its heyday the opera was perhaps the best known and most frequently staged of all Russian operas, the piece is now usually only known through a couple of its arias. The Demon’s great Act II romance, “Ne plach’, ditta” (“Do not weep, child” – sung offstage), was a particular favourite of Chaliapin and Tamara’s final aria, also a romance, “Noch’ tepla, noch’ tikha” (“The night is warm, the night is still”), forms a part of the soprano concert aria repertoire. But Rubinstein, the most powerful figure in Russian music during his lifetime and feted abroad, especially in Austria and Germany, is nowadays best remembered as Tchaikovsky’s teacher. Rubinstein’s idiosyncratic operatic style of lyrical romances in episodic forms, couched in a rather conservative musical language enhanced with oriental flourishes, all became hallmark elements of Tchaikovsky’s own operas. A comeback for The Demon is possible though, and certainly deserved. A concert performance in London at the Barbican (by the Marinsky Theatre) in 2009 proved a great success. This new production will travel to Nuremberg and Bordeaux in 2020 and finally “home” to Moscow in 2021. It is quite a triumph.

The production is superbly cast, for a start, its Hvorostovsky-shaped hole notwithstanding. Silins is in his element, his rounded baritone generating great power without ever forcing the voice, particularly important here where smooth lyricism is at such a premium. The soprano Asmik Grigorian, a Lithuanian rising star, is also wonderfully suited to the role of Tamara and maintains her even beauty of tone in the long and punishing Act III duet during which the Demon finally wins from her the kiss that will kill her. Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Igor Morozov both give fine, moving performances as Tamara’s father and betrothed, respectively, and Mynenko, in a role usually cast for soprano, makes a splendid Angel. All the singers benefit from Tatarnikov’s powerfully phrased and paced conducting, supported by the superb and highly polished playing of the Liceu orchestra, and also from Bertman’s direction which, in the Russian style, gives the singers plenty of space to take their stand and deliver their lines. The acoustic projection is helped by Schörghofer’s striking set. Most of the action takes place inside a long wooden conical section, like the inside of some cosmic musical instrument. A giant hemisphere is suspended behind the rear opening, onto which is projected the revolving earth, moon, hellfire or – in a nice touch for the convent scene – a med-ieval rose window which melts in kaleidoscopic rotations when the Demon enters.

The English playwright Sarah Kane knew a thing or two about demons, and faced up to them in the five extraordinary plays she left complete by the time of her death, aged twenty-eight, in 1999. Her last play, written months before she committed suicide in hospital after being admitted for clinical depression, features an unnamed central character played by multiple actors, and portrays without plot or development the internal and external dialogue of a woman undergoing treatment for depression, leading up to her eventual suicide. The play’s title, 4:48 Psychosis, refers to the time at which Kane said she woke every morning for a brief hour during which she enjoyed some clarity of mind.

It’s not an obvious play for operatic adaptation, but the opera, composed by Philip Venables and commissioned by the Royal Opera and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as part of their inaugural joint composer-in-residence scheme, which opened to great acclaim at the Hammersmith Lyric in 2016 and was recently revived in a short run, has several advantages over the original. One is that several of the more challenging features of the play, such as the long lists – of medication or states of mind – and the polyphonic protagonist fit quite naturally into operatic models. Another is that the play’s surprisingly prominent wit and humour come out extremely well in a musical setting – given the right treatment of course, and Venables, amazingly for his first opera, gets everything just right. The vocal and instrumental ensemble writing, brilliantly realized under Richard Baker’s musical direction, employs an incredibly wide range of styles – from Elizabethan laments to electronically enhanced howls and shrieks – to construct a series of intersecting fragmentary numbers. The oppressive figure of silence is conveyed by the use of muzak, and the protagonist’s conversations with her doctor are sometimes relayed through projected typed text and two opposing percussionists who succeed brilliantly in reducing the dialogue to empty, circular rhetorical shells. The most powerful aspect of the opera, however, is the sense of relentless violence – brought out well by Ted Huffman’s direction of the six singers – which asserts itself not merely in the action but in the way the formal conventions of the text and music seem to rail against their own inadequacies. The force of Kane’s protagonist is pitched against the containment of a personality whose limits, often brutally enforced, lie outside her control. But then, as we learn from Rubinstein’s Demon, such is the case for all of us. It’s just that only a few take the fight to its inevitably tragic conclusions.

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