Rubinstein's The Demon

reviewed by Hugh Canning in The Sunday Times 07.07.2019

The Chelsea Opera Group could scarcely have imagined its luck when it engaged a little-known Ukrainian baritone, Andrei Kymach, for its performance last weekend of a Russian rarity, Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon. Two weeks ago, Kymach was named BBC Singer of the World in Cardiff, and word spread rapidly — before the final, indeed — about the spectacularly gifted 31-year-old’s big, dramatic baritone and striking, charismatic presence.

This casting coup — Kymach was apparently recommended by the evening’s soprano, the Armenian Anush Hovhannisyan, a former Royal Opera Jette Parker artist — ensured a house at the QEH that the group could only have dreamt of. Chances to hear this reputedly gloomy yarn by one of the also-rans of 19th-century Russian music have been few, but this fine performance was a worthy successor to Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky performance at the Barbican a decade ago.

Rubinstein is remembered primarily as a pedagogue, the founder of the St Petersburg Conservatory and the teacher of Tchaikovsky. The subject matter of The Demon, based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, initially banned for its supposed blasphemy, is at the heart of the Romantic operatic tradition. The unnamed Demon is a damned soul, like Marschner’s Vampire or Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, seeking redemption through the love of a chaste woman. He seduces Tamara with his serenading after compassing the death in battle of her betrothed, Prince Sinodal, but she dies from his passionate embrace. The Demon is condemned to eternal damnation by the Angel, who announces Tamara’s redemption in the closing pages, recalling Berlioz’s and Gounod’s Faust operas.

Kymach’s Demon is a saturnine, glowering presence, dramatic of both appearance and voice, but he does not yet outclass his soprano and tenor colleagues. Hovhannisyan’s prima-donna temperament and exciting singing mean she steals the limelight as Tamara, with her brilliantly shaded spinto voice and nuanced artistry. Her use of colour and dynamics is spellbinding, and she threw herself physically into the part, as if in a fully staged production.
Her Prince is not an obvious Romantic lead tenor part — he disappears halfway through the opera — but the young Georgian Giorgi Sturua gave as striking a performance as Kymach, in less promising material, with his plangent, burgeoning heroic timbre and eloquent savour of the Russian text.

Rubinstein’s score is certainly a challenge for COG’s orchestra and chorus, but under Oliver Zeffman’s assured baton, it would be hard to imagine any other amateurs making such a strong case for the music in this country. The cast was completed by the British stalwarts Angela Simkin, vocally lustrous as the Angel; Barnaby Rea as Tamara’s father, Gudal; Sarah Pring as her nurse; John Findon as the Messenger who brings the news of Sinodal’s demise; and Graeme Broadbent as a sonorous Old Peasant. One of COG’s most worthwhile exhumations of late.

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