Rubinstein, Demon

I suppose it was fitting to use Anton Rubinstein’Demon as my final performance in Russia: the opera is set in Georgia.  Also, Rubinstein was a Jewish pianist of international acclaim (even Liszt refused to take him as a student because he was too good and reminded people of Beethoven back when Beethoven had performed publicly on the piano), composer, and conductor whose greatest contribution to music was probably that he introduced higher musical education to Russia.  He founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then sent his younger brother Nikolai to Moscow to open a branch there which later became the Moscow Conservatory.  The system he set up in St. Petersburg was copied all over the Russian Empire, and is directly responsible for the level of music education that has continued to this day (with periodic interruptions so the Russians could purge the over-representation of Jews in music).  This means that I owe to Rubinstein, more than to any other person, my enjoyment of the music scene here for the last two-plus years.

I actually saw this same production of the Demon at the Stanislavsky in October 2010.  However, that was a poor performance, so I went back to the Stanislavsky again tonight with a different cast.  I enjoy this opera (I also saw it at the Novaya Opera in 2009), but it is almost never performed outside Russia, so I figured it was worth hearing one last time even in a substandard production.  That said, tonight was a huge improvement on last year.  The problem then was a weak-voiced cast which required miking.  Tonight’s cast was full-throated.  Not only did this allow for better tone (and no feedback from the tinny loudspeakers), but it also meant that the cast did not have to constantly move to the front of the stage (where the microphones were last year) but instead could sing from further back.  The result of this was better acting.  The dark fairy-tale staging, which did not seem fully thought-through last year made more sense this year without the singers constantly coming forward for the mikes.  Although I am not sure this staging fully convinced me even now, it did make some more sense than it did last year and had a certain charm.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, whom I have seen perform an energetic Scarpia on this stage, gave the same amount of dark energy to the title role here tonight.  Mariya Lobanova was a sympathetic Princess Tamar.  The singers in the secondary roles also came across stronger than their counterparts last year, now both audible without miking and with pleasant voices.

Wolf Gorelik conducted again this year.  Like last year, I did not find his reading particularly idiomatic, missing the tension between good and evil that permeates this opera.  But with a better cast to work with this time, he did not get in their way at all.  While I might hope to see an even better performance sometime in my life, with a true A-list cast and a mystical conductor, this time through did mark an improvement and provided a satisfactory conclusion to my musical program in Russia.

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