Chelsea Opera Group’s Revelatory Presentation of Rubinstein’s The Demon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Anton Rubinstein, The Demon: Soloists, Chelsea Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Oliver Zeffman (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 30.6.2019. (CC)

Andrei Kymach (c) Alexander Andryushchenko


The Demon – Andrei Kymach
Tamara – Anush Hovhannisyan
The Angel – Angela Simkin
Prince Gudal – Barnaby Rea
Prince Sinodal – Giorgi Sturua
Old Servant – Graeme Broadbent
Nurse – Sarah Pring
Messenger – John Findon

Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon (1871) was once popular; indeed, it was one of the most popular operas in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, and Fyodor Chaliapin was associated with the title role. It received a hundred performances in its first decade. The discography is rather limited: notable are a performance at Wexford in 1994 (available on Naxos), a 1974 Moscow performance on Melodiya and Melik-Pasheyev’s 1950 version on Great Hall. So, even on disc it needs a helping hand. Seen and Heard International carried a review of a Paris performance in 2003 here. Hearing it in this terrific performance from Chelsea Opera Group was a pleasure and a privilege: the music is powerful, the characterisation excellent. In keeping, perhaps, with Russia’s penchant for lower male voices, the tenor role, Prince Sinodal (here Giorgi Sturua), dies at the end of the first act: the Devil really does get all the good tunes. He certainly gets to sing a lot more. The very opening of the work is interesting, too: percussion-based, it could almost be the start of a piece of contemporary music until the strings come in and create a late Romantic harmonic/melodic field.

The opera has a libretto by Pavel Viskovatov, based on a poem by the great Mikhail Lermontov, and the first performance of The Demon took place at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in January 1875. Here we most definitely have an anti-hero, whose obsession with Tamara fuels the action. The opera is structured as a Prologue, three acts and an Epilogue, but each part is designated as a sequentially numbered ‘Scene’, giving us scenes 1-6 (this includes the Prologue), with a separate, unnumbered Epilogue in which an Angel appears and announces Tamara will be taken to Heaven – Tamara is then borne there by a host of angels (so echoes of the Faust legend here and of Marguerite).

The Demon initially encounters an angel, who tells him that only love can redeem him. The Demon meets Prince Gudal’s daughter, Tamara, who is betrothed, but falls under his spell. In the final scene of the first act the Demon ensures the slaying of the Prince by the Tartars. The Prince’s body is brought to the celebrations for his forthcoming wedding. At this point Tamara asks her father, Prince Gudal, to send her to a convent for protection as she feels she is going mad, because she alone can hear the voice of the Demon (the instruction for her to go is beautifully accompanied by a rich-sounding trio of trombones). Predictably, perhaps, that strategy is no bar to a demon: he follows her and proclaims his love for Tamara, in the process swerving an Angel ‘bouncer’ at the monastery. When the Demon and Tamara meet, and he declares his love, she appeals to God for help, but she gives in nevertheless. The Demon kisses her; she falls dead in his arms. The Epilogue is where her soul is escorted to Heaven while the Demon is damned to eternal solitude. The text several times refers to the Demon in terms of a snake, presumably linking this to biblical imagery.

Sometimes, presentations such as these can lead to full stagings. One hopes this will be the case here; it would surely add further levels of revelation. Rubinstein’s music, late Romantic, conceived on a grand scale, combined with the powerful story (which feeds into tropes embedded in the human subconsciousness) and an appropriate director would make for a revelatory evening. This was such an evening. The cast was a fine one, notable for two aspects, perhaps: Sarah Pring took over the role of the Nanny from Yvonne Howard at short notice, and performed it brilliantly (our indulgence was craved, if applicable, prior to the performance start; but in the end surely no-one would have guessed) and the casting of the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach, only the week previously announced as the winner of the 2019 Cardiff Singer of the World: quite a coup for COG.

Kymach is, indeed, a major find. He has huge stage presence – in the nicest way possible, he is the very embodiment of a demon – and his voice is pure gold, with no loss of burnished lustre as he enters his higher registers. Kymach’s assumption of the role was a masterclass in authority as well as revealing a voice that seems tireless. There was no sense of strain at any point, and his contributions to the final act were mesmerizing. Another link to the Cardiff competition comes in the form of Anush Hovhannisyan as Tamara, who represented Armenia in the 2017 competition, here beautifully pure-voiced, and very, very accurate of pitch. Hovhannisyan impressed at COG’s Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore back in 2015, and she did so again here.

The short-lived Prince Sinodal was taken by tenor Giorgi Sturua, from the Young Artists Programme at the Bolshoi – he is also essaying Don Juan in Dargomyzhky’s The Stone Guest, another opera that could do with an airing: history has not been kind to it, pigeon-holing it as a rather gray, recitative/arioso dominated opera. Sturua’s Sinodal was memorable for an ardent vision of Tamara. Barnaby Rea, most recently seen as Ben Benny in ENO’s Paul Bunyan at Alexandra Palace, was a fine Prince Gudal (Sindal’s father).

As the Angel, the aptly-named Angela Simkin excels, round of voice and absolutely beautiful of sound. Wonderful, too, to see the familiar face of Graeme Broadbent, superb as the Old Servant. John Findon was a strong messenger.

All this was brought together under the expert baton of Oliver Zeffman (the Classical Music nominee for The Times Breakthrough Artist Award at the 2018 South Bank Sky Arts Awards). Zeffman creates a real sense of flow, sensing the work’s architecture brilliantly, allowing the strength of Rubinstein’s music to come through strongly. The chorus was in good form – perhaps the chorus of evil spirits in the Prologue were too polite, while the female voices could be a touch reedy. But this should not detract from what was a major achievement, and one for which we should be immensely grateful.

Colin Clarke

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