Over its six-year history, Commonwealth Lyric Theater has brought to Boston a series of underappreciated Russian and Ukrainian operas in nontraditional playing spaces. Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Rachmaninov’s Aleko, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri in Brighton’s Temple Bnai Moshe. Semen Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube in Newton’s First Baptist Church. And last year — in a departure from “underappreciated” — Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in Newton City Hall. This year’s offering is again obscure by American standards — Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon — but CLT is stepping up to a conventional theater, the Cutler Majestic. The transition isn’t always a smooth one, and there are flaws in the production. There are also surprises: CLT’s Demon, Ukrainian-born bass baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, doesn’t even appear on stage till act three. Seen or unseen, he’s magnificent. And this is surely the best Demon you’ll ever see. It’s probably the only Demon you’ll ever see, but it’s a worthy presentation of Rubinstein’s great opera and you really need to see it.
Rubinstein himself is not obscure — he was one of the great piano virtuosos of the late 19th century, and he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was also a prolific composer: six symphonies, five piano concertos, works for piano and chamber ensembles, oratorios, a ballet, and a clutch of operas, of which the best known — relatively speaking — is The Demon. Based on Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Demon,” it was first presented to a small private audience (which included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) in 1871. The Demon premiered in St. Petersburg in 1875 and enjoyed scores of performances thereafter; there’s a 1903 painting of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. But at its Paris premiere, in 1911, it got mixed reviews, and it has hardly prospered in the West. The CLT production is the first in Boston in nearly a century.
Lermontov wrote “Demon” over a period of ten years, from 1829 to 1839, finishing it in the Caucasus when he was just 24. The title character is a fallen angel, a “Spirit of Despair,” who at the outset is remembering how he used to shine among God’s Cherubim, how he’d exchange smiles with a passing comet. Now he roams the earth, a proud outcast for whom sin has lost its allure. But when his eye falls on Mount Kazbek, and the valleys below, and Gudal’s beautiful daughter Tamara, he’s smitten; she wakes in him the lost joys of Heaven. Tamara is about to wed; even as the Demon first sees her, her princely bridegroom is en route. As evening falls, Sinodal arrives at a chapel where another nobleman was foully slain. It’s the custom to pray at this shrine to ward off possible Muslim attacks, but when the Demon turns Sinodal’s thoughts to the warm lips of his future bride, the prince neglects the prayer, and he and his caravan pay the price.
Desolate, a widow on her wedding day, Tamara persuades her father to let her retire to a convent. But there’s strange, beckoning voice in her ear, and an envisioned form, eyes full of love, that’s from neither Heaven nor Hell. Her thoughts are wild, her dreams guilty; her heart prays not to God but to the Demon. Brushing past an Angel who tries to block his way, the Demon enters Tamara’s cell, acknowledges himself as Heaven’s foe, kneels, and plights his troth — for him, she’s been engraved on his soul since the firmament took shape. Tamara implores him to renounce sin; he swears to make her empress of the world, which is not quite the same thing, and kisses her, whereupon she dies. At the end, which Lermontov rewrote in an attempt — not wholly successful — to forestall censorship, an Angel bears Tamara up to Heaven; the Demon is rebuffed when he tries to claim her.
Byron was always a major influence on Lermontov, and his Demon is nothing if not Byronic; the poem is the Demon’s tragedy rather than Tamara’s. For the libretto of The Demon, Rubinstein engaged Russian literature professor Pavel Viskovatov, who devoted himself to Lermontov’s legacy. Viskovatov’s libretto is not as florid as Lermontov’s original; his Demon doesn’t promise Tamara a chaplet from the vast treasures of the morning star, or dewdrops that will shine like diamonds. But he’s true to the poet’s spirit, and he fleshes out the dramatically thin narrative with opera-friendly scenes like the opening Choruses of Spirits, the water-fetching journey of Tamara and her friends, the salute to “the juice of the grape” from Gudal’s wedding guests, and a pair of exotic Oriental dances. He expands the role of Sinodal, who, ominously, likens himself to a falcon and Tamara to his dove. The Demon, promising Tamara golden dreams, remains poetic and rebellious; as in Lermontov’s poem, he’s the villain — and the hero.
In his posthumously published Gedankenkorb (1897), Rubinstein wrote, “Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl — a pitiful individual.” As music, The Demon, at least, is not quite Russian, and not quite European — which may in part account for the opera’s lack of popularity. Yet as a Romantic score, it works, and you can hear anticipations of future Russian operas, among them Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
In its full form, The Demon runs two and a half hours. CLT artistic director Alexander Prokhorov, in a program note, describes this production as “a slightly abridged version of The Demon, which excludes some of the elements that were introduced to appease the censors.” Thursday’s performance ran two hours and 25 minutes, but it started 20 minutes late, and there was a 20-minute intermission between acts one and two, so we got just 105 minutes of music — a more than “slightly abridged version.” Missing here: the opening Choruses of Spirits; the two wedding-guest choruses at the beginning of act two; the act-two finale, in which Gudal is encouraged to set out after the Tatars who killed Sinodal; the watchman’s song that opens act three; the nuns’ chorus; and the final angel chorus. Gudal’s proposed vengeance is a dramatic dead end — he doesn’t reappear in act three — and is frequently omitted in performance; it’s no loss. But some of the other cuts seem prompted more by a desire to shorten the evening than by any idea of excluding “elements that were introduced to appease the censors.” The 13 minutes of dance music in act two, at Tamara’s wedding feast, are also frequently omitted in performance, but not here, where CLT has brought in the Pesvebi Georgian Folk Ensemble, complete with Georgian drum and the flute-like duduk.
There are some trade-offs to presenting your opera in a regular theater space. CLT’s set for Aleko spread to the perimeter of Temple Bnai Moshe: there were wagons and hay bales and a tent, with laundry hanging from a line and the ushers dressed as Gypsies and going barefoot. That sort of thing would scarcely be possible at the Majestic. And what was charmingly makeshift at Temple Bnai Moshe can look merely makeshift at the Majestic. Anastasia Grigoreva’s costumes are serviceable but generic and unprepossessing. Her physical set is sparse: some rocks for the scenes where the maidens fetch water and Sinodal’s caravan halts for the night; a long table for the wedding feast; a prie-dieu for the convent. For the rest, we get video projections from Patrick K.-H.: swirling galaxies to represent the eternal world of the Demon; a brief look at the tortures of the damned; the mountains of the Caucasus for the water fetching; a stone chapel for the caravan scene; the stone walls of a castle for the wedding feast; Romanesque arches to represent the convent. It tended to wash out in brightly lighted scenes.
It was often effective, though missing the third dimension; on Thursday “Input” and “Signal” would occasionally show up on screen in place of the projection. The supertitles were clear and mostly reasonable as a translation of the libretto, but too often they were out of synch with the action. And when Sinodal’s old retainer told him that his wound was mortal, the supertitle, if I saw it correctly, read, “The knife penetrated too deeply” — which was a surprise since Sinodal had been shot. We’d even heard the report of the rifle.
Playing a reduction of the score by Moshe Shulman, the orchestra of just 24 under CLT’s St. Petersburg–born music director, Lidiya Yankovskaya, sounded underpowered and a little tentative in the Prologue. Thereafter, as usual with CLT productions, the playing was more than fine; the string solos were particularly lovely in the sequence where Sinodal falls asleep. In any case, this is an opera where the music serves the libretto and not the other way round.
An uncut performance of The Demon opens in turmoil, with a Chorus of Infernal Spirits pitted against Choruses of Heavenly Spirits and Nature, and when you hear the timpani pounding in a steady rhythm that anticipates the Adagio finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony, you know that Heaven will win out. I was sorry to miss that section here. It’s not essential to the plot, but it does show that the Demon, when he enters, belongs to neither Heaven nor Hell. He’s immortal, he’s solitary, and tempting humans to sin is too easy to be satisfying.
Except that here the Demon doesn’t actually enter. Instead, Prokhorov has Bogdanov remain offstage during his first exchange with Anna Cley’s Angel. Cley, seen only in silhouette against the galaxy backdrop, offers love and forgiveness; the Demon wants freedom and passion and calls her a slave. Cley is a stern, impersonal Angel — if that’s an interpretative decision, it’s not a bad one. But even invisible, Bogdanov overpowers her, with a voice as infinite as those galaxies, and infinitely attentive to the nuances of his text. He posits himself as the opera’s hero; you could argue he’s the more impressive for not being seen.
The second scene belongs to Tamara and her maiden retinue. She may be a princess, but she’s not too proud to fetch water with them. A golden fish dances “on the sapphire blue waves,” the girls tell us. Not everyone sees him, only those he likes, and they’re invited to his mansion of colored crystal. The Demon, with his promise of “golden dreams,” is the fish; Tamara tells her friends not to let “the fishes look at you” when they’re filling their buckets with water, but then she herself gets hooked.
CLT’s Tamara, Moscow-born Zhanna Alkhazova, didn’t quite hook me. She has a clarion soprano, and she’s not shrill even when full out, but she’s full out most of the time, and that tires the ear. Her Tamara is initially not very spontaneous with her friends; when she does let loose, over Sinodal’s corpse, it’s all histrionics — granted, pretty good histrionics. But it’s hard to see the passion that the Demon spies in her. Cley doubles as Tamara’s nanny; she too, in her spotlight song of Sinodal galloping to his wedding day, could be more animated.
As Sinodal, on the other hand, Adam Klein, a sonically brilliant and dramatically ardent tenor, made a worthy rival for the Demon, even if, like Alkhazova, he tends to sing to the audience rather than to those around him. Tender in his “Transformed into a falcon” romance, Klein let the last words die away for a moving death scene. Substituting for the listed singer, Prokhorov was authoritative as Sinodal’s old retainer, with a voice even deeper and more resonant than Bogdanov’s, if that’s possible. The Tatars here are projections on the screen that slash and hack while the Sinodal’s real-life retinue panics and scatters; it works.
The choruses, both male and female, are so rewarding in this production that it’s a shame the choral numbers for the wedding guests have been eliminated from act two. But the dancing compensates, especially the acrobatic men, who engage in what looks like a rapid-fire Morris dance with sparking swords instead of sticks. Right in the middle of the sequence, in another innovative touch, we get a pantomime story of the opera, with dancers representing the Demon, Tamara, and Sinodal.
Toward the end of act two, the Demon appears as a larger-than-life silhouette to sing to the sleeping Tamara his great romance “On the ocean of the air.” In act three, he finally takes the stage, sporting a feathered headpiece that’s as flattering as it is perplexing, for his confrontation with Tamara, now immured in a convent. Bogdanov is seductive, even sincere, as he kneels at the prie-dieu and swears to renounce evil; you might wish the lighting let you see more of his face. Alkhazova — or was it Prokhorov’s decision? — is too much the victim, overcome rather than enamored. Even in her great romance, “The night is warm, the night is silent,” she’s not quite intimate, though she does take the decibel level down a notch. Finally she looks the Demon in the eye, at close quarters; she’s about to fall for him.
At this point in the opera, the nuns burst in singing the praises of the Creator and Tamara realizes what she’s about to do. In this production, there are no nuns, so Tamara’s awakening comes from nothing. The Demon persists; Tamara, now a martyr, lies down as if the pleasureless sacrifice of her virginity could save Mother Russia. It’s not an ideal staging, and after Tamara dies and the Angel appears to claim her, Bogdanov is made to look all too human as he stumbles off stage. Rubinstein — who did have censorship to deal with — bears some responsibility; it’s the cursed, forlorn Demon we should see at the end, not Tamara and the Angel ascending into Heaven.
All the same, The Demon is a masterpiece. Kudos to CLT for bringing it to Boston. There’ll be a second performance at the Majestic, April 20 at 8 p.m. And on April 19, at 7:30 p.m., CLT will present Prokhorov, singer and pianist, in “Dark Eyes: The Master of Russian and Gypsy Romances.”