Presented by Commonwealth Lyric Theater Orchestra and Chorus PESVEBI Georgian Dance Ensemble
By Anton Rubenstein
Based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov
Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya
Artistic/Stage Director: Alexander Prokhorov
Production Director and Stage Manager: Steven Kunis
By Gillian Daniels
(Boston, MA) In the world of Anton Rubenstein’s The Demon, the danger of Hell is ever-present, princesses are virtuous, princes are valorous, and Heaven is an ethereal step away. Aleksey Bogdanov is the titular Demon, a creature that informs the audience and the angel with whom he spars, Anna Cley, he has chosen freedom over God. In the course of the play, he also chooses Tamara (played with wide-eyed innocence by Zhanna Alkhazova) and upends her life.
In many ways, it’s a straightforward fairy tale of seduction and faith. As such, the characters of this nineteenth century opera hew very closely to what we’ve come to be seen as tropes. It’s hard to say what goes on between the ears of Prince Gudal (Ryan Stoll), for example, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is that he loves Tamara, is the correct choice for her as dictated in the world of the play, but is viewed as competition by the Demon.
The broad strokes of this story are appealing and have costumes to match. Tamara is attended by a female chorus of maids in matching outfits and hairstyles who sing of delight in the Argava River and the princess’ impending marriage. The Demon, too, is cast without subtlety, first represented as a giant eye on the screen behind the actors, looking around feverishly as photos of galaxies whirl, representing Heaven, and Medieval torture devices skate by, representing Hell. When he does finally reach the stage in Act III, he wears black feathers. Anna Cley, who is not only the angel but plays Tamara’s nurse, appears with feathers that are white. The tale and its telling are elegant but economic in their simplicity, stiffly but stylishly told.
Perhaps where the staging begins to fall down is in trying to make it overly complex. Photos of rolling hills, a palace courtyard, and other scenes are projected on the same screen where the Demon’s eye appears. They are unneeded, certainly when the projection was interrupted twice during the performance I saw, replaced by the Blue Screen of Death.
The chorus and performers set the stage well enough on their own. Who needs a photo of a palace courtyard when the PESVEBI Georgian Folk Ensemble have choreographed dances and swordfights that give a far better picture of idealized court life?
The only element the screen really adds are the photos of interstellar bodies that represent the divine with nebulas and simple, cold, distant stars.
Much of the show outside of the dancing has an air of distance. The most heat is generated in the Demon’s pursuit of Tamara. His lust is palpable. If this were a YA novel love triangle and not about the chastity of her soul, I would root for Tamara to dump her fiancee and bail on her father’s kingdom for immortality with the Demon.
Obviously, my view of The Demon as a simple story is certainly colored by living over a century after its premiere and many countries away. In 1871, Russian censors saw the plot as anti-Christian and offensive, despite the Demon’s depiction as evil and Tamara’s resolve to be good. Rubenstein had to alter it before it was performed in 1875. Something about the seduction of an innocent by a cruel man who promised unfathomable powers struck a deep and unpleasant chord. “Whenever twenty-first-century Russian culture looks for a foundation it can build itself from, healthy and happy, it finds the floor gives way and buries it in soil and blood,” Peter Pomerantsev writes in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of New Russia (2014). “But as the country starts to look for its role models, its fathers, it turns out that every candidate is a tyrant: Ivan the Terrible, founder of Russia proper in the sixteenth century and the first tsar; Peter the Great; Lenin; Stalin. The country seems transfixed in adoration of abusive leaders.”
I’ve been reading this non-fiction book by chance and saw more parallels between the opera and the text than I was prepared to see. On the one hand, here’s a story of an innocent princess terrified but fascinated by a powerful, “truly free” demon who promises greatness but, in consuming her, will cut her mortal life short and damn her soul; on the other, here’s a country with a history of despising and loving the leaders who claim they will set them free before doing them harm. The story of Rubenstein’s The Demon may be straightforward, but its implications, layers, and meaning within the wider culture are epic in scope. Go see it.
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