Rubinstein's The Demon
reviewed by NEIL FISHER in The Times 02.07.2019
At the end of the 19th-century the biggest operatic hit for Russian audiences wasn’t anything by Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. It was Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon, now rarely performed. A decade after its last London outing (courtesy of the Mariinsky), Chelsea Opera Group have given it another spin.
Rubinstein made his living as a pianist and bitterly resented his compositions being overlooked. The Demon, however, seemed to click with his audiences and with its composer. His Jewish family were converted wholesale to orthodox Christianity when Rubinstein was a child. Proudly Russian, Rubinstein nonetheless didn’t ally himself to nationalist composers, Mussorgsky among them. It’s not a stretch to suggest that he found something to admire in the splendidly brooding antihero of The Demon, who refuses to be a “slave” to God and sets his sights on the beautiful Georgian princess Tamara, even if she will go to Hell if he seduces her.
The score is suitably intense, although that intensity wasn’t completely matched by COG’s hard-working but not always full-bodied orchestra and chorus. They were conducted by Oliver Zeffman, who made a good argument for the vitality of the music. What lets Rubinstein down is his dramatic pacing and characterisation: he structures his scenes more like tableaux in an oratorio (Mendelssohn is a key influence) and there’s limited emotional or expressive nuance. A hapless tenor love interest appears for a heady romanza — strongly sung by the Georgian tenor Giorgi Sturua — and is promptly bumped off without fanfare. The outstanding highlight is the third-act duet between the Demon and Tamara, kept at boiling point until Rubinstein manages to botch its climax, a fateful demonic kiss.
You couldn’t have wanted much more from the singers. The recently crowned Cardiff Singer of the World, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach, was the noblest of demons, wooing his prey with his burnished timbre and the odd toss of his shoulder-length hair — although the part lies a little too low for him. Anush Hovhannisyan, an Armenian soprano, sang with sultry ardour as Tamara, clearly tempted by this devil. There was strong support from Angela Simkin’s implacable Angel, the opera’s heavenly spoilsport.