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The Self Reborn at Sosnoff

Opera review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jul 28th, 2018

The cast of The Demon with Leon Botstein in center

What’s both new and old in opera? Anton Rubinstein’s 1871 opera The Demon has been resuscitated with some success at Bard College’s Sosnoff Theater under the baton of Leon Botstein. The greatest success of this production remains the set design by Paule Tate dePoo III supplemented with marvelous video designs by Greg Emetaz, which alone merits the purchase of a ticket: atomistic digital-effects project startling pin-point wonders over the arc of a rather long story buoyed by robust harmonies of choral finesse superbly directed by James Bagwell.

I thought the costume of The Demon, ably sung by Efim Zavalny, a wardrobe malfunction in the first two of the three acts. The Demon should have a different costume for each act, the shape-changer evolving gradually from fierce-flaming cartoon into the handsome soap-opera seducer who doesn’t have a clue (or the time) on how to tie his bedraggled bow tie. In the second act the demon needs more vibrant visible contrast as he socially mingles at court.

Olga Tolmit as the princess might have been given more sartorial color in the first act. Her soprano singing grows with the progress of the plot and finally reaches great height in the last act. The scene of the women washing clothes at the river was an amusing, contrasting take-off from the famous Odysseus-Nausicaä scene in Homer’s Odyssey. The princess is no Nausicaa—more of a meek country girl who has read too many Romantic novels.

It was a tragedy that tenor Alexander Nesterenko, as Prince Sinodal, had to die at the end of the first act because he sang too well to have his life end so soon. The new tweaking of his honorable death in battle is an improvement over the original lame accident of a landslide (Rubenstein’s atheism peeking out from behind the curtain). Sinodal’s loyal Old Servant, sung by bass Yakov Strizak, delivered consistent pleasure. Tenor Andrey Valenti with bass tones as the Caucasian Prince Gudal was suitably forceful and cagily mercurial as he rumbled my lower intestines; his agony at having his only daughter enter a convent was so convincing that it nearly made me convert to atheism. Nadezhda Babinsteva, as soprano angel, also sang well, but not so well that I could believe in angels any more than Rubinstein could.

Although this production is to be highly recommended, I had problems with some contemporary kitsch “upgrades” by director Thaddeus Strassberger. Does Sinodal’s dream of his bride-to-be princess need to flash a sword as if to murder him, then briefly place the sword between them as in Gottfried von Strasbourg’s Tristan und Isolde? And does she really have to mount him like a riding harlequin in a B rodeo movie? Likewise in the third act, does not the libidinous cries of sex-starved nuns gyrating and masturbating on their beds offer a gratuitous touch at odds with plot ambiance and music? And do we really need a bloody bed sheet? Isn’t this exactly the debased swank that music and opera need to combat and defeat?

The music itself is not remarkable, yet always provides smooth functional support that is neither strident nor dull. Richard Taruskin’s semi-admiration for the Oriental music motifs was that it was merely good “harem” music tastefully done. The colorful Georgian Dancers were a welcome delight: the ladies glided their shuffle with padded feet as if they were swans on a lake, while the lads spun, leapt, and cavorted with such excess that I could not understand why they were not smothered in playful mocking kisses for their bravura athletic feats. Choreographer Shorena Barbakadze put on quite a show for the narrow space and time she had to work with.

In the end the plot was more allegory than story: a story about confronting the dark shadow of the demonic self—very Manichean, quite Russian. This was the story of a demon who so hated humankind that he eventually fell in love with a woman to the extent that he reduced himself to the human plane in order to escape his diminished demonic nature. The solution? An angel defeats him and drags the anti-hero pop-music-star-Demon by the ears off to Hell where he belongs for having seduced the princess and killed the prince—human behavior on the demonic level.

Rubinstein’s clever atheistic ironies bored the Parisians in 1871, yet may be too sophisticated for twenty-first century Americans out for entertainment that resists introspection. In the final scene, the princess ceremoniously buries her own body with a shovel after she has already been brutally and carelessly buried by “society,” thus she buries her demonic shadow-self and is now free to live her real liberated life.

Despite some minor qualms, I’m a believer in this production and even in an afterlife in heaven for this production. With some penitential revision, it should have legs, legs long enough to stride this continent and perhaps the Atlantic Ocean. This neglected masterpiece needs to find a home.

Further performances are July 29, August 1, 3, and 5th. For more information visit Fisher Center.

P.S. Updated with some corrections by Tonia Shoumatoff.