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Bard SummerScape

In REview Bard Summerscape Demon hdl 818
Olga Tolkmit (center) as Tamara with Efim Zavalny as the titular Demon in Thaddeus Strassberger's production of Anton Rubinstein's Demon at Bard SummerScape
Photo by Stephanie Berger
In Review Bard Demon lg 2 818
Efim Zavalny as Demon with Tolkmit
Photo by Stephanie Berger

EVERY SUMMER BARD'S SUMMERSCAPE offers a rarity, revived by musicologist and Bard College president Leon Botstein that has some relation to the topic of the college’s Music Festival, presented later in the summer. For the 2018 festival, centered on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Botstein made a worthwhile choice—Demon (1871) by Anton Rubinstein, a major figure in Russian music as conservatory founder, bravura pianist and gifted composer. Based on a sulfuric narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov, Demon depicts a fallen angel who—essentially on a Miltonic dare from an unfallen colleague—becomes obsessed with Tamara, a Georgian princess, ruins her projected marriage and yet inspires obsessional feelings in her. She’s redeemed; he isn’t.

Melodic inspiration is limited, but the music is well-crafted—almost to a fault, some edgier effects might help—and reflects sources in German Romanticism. Touches of Lucia-like glass harmonica accompany Tamara’s grief at the corpse of her fiancé, Sinodal. Demon is demonstrably part of the national operatic literature stemming from Glinka, despite Russian Nationalist composers’ mistrust of Rubenstein’s Teutonic education (and Jewish origins). Interrupted or aborted marriages and at-risk tenor fiancés who don’t survive into the last act figure in a large number of well-known Russian operas. In the formal sense, so do defining romantic pairings between sopranos and baritones: Demon is situated on a continuum including Eugene Onegin, Mazeppa, Fiery Angel and War and Peace. The construction by assembling orchestrated art song-like units (romansy), with the occasional Verdi-style concertato in the mix, persisted in Rubenstein’s friend Tchaikovsky’s Onegin eight years later. Demon merited the care and expense Botstein took in programming it.

Stage director Thaddeus Strassberger, a regular at Bard SummerScape, is unquestionably talented, but has a propensity to complicate and obscure narrative, demonstrated here in the pointless, visually confusing cliché of “multiple” Tamaras, played by four extras, a device that weakened rather than strengthened the sense of her obsession and vulnerability. There was equally cliché signaling of events in mimed episodes in the Prologue, leaving many viewers perplexed as to the opera’s basic story arc. 

That said, Strassberger and his design team crafted a visually compelling spectacle. Paul Tate dePoo III’s set provided handsome receding gray arcs and a useful variety of heightened playing surfaces. A set unit—effectively topped at times by burning candles—rolled on with five convent cells—fine visually, but a somewhat constraining space for Act III’s extended duet for Tamara and the Demon, one of the score’s most compelling passages. Kaye Voyce’s richly colorful, eras-spanning costumes suggested some time well spent studying the great primitive painter Niko Pirosmani and added to the drama’s interest. The one exception would be the fairly ordinary silhouette furnished for Efim Zavalny as the title character. Zavalny has dark, soap-opera-villain good looks but here registered pretty much like a ‘50s tough guy, emitting the occasional puff of smoke but with no enhanced shoulders or dramatic cape.

Greg Emetaz’s video effects—stormy weather as well as opulent decoration—proved a plus. Cultural authenticity ratcheted up with the entrance in the wedding scene of the Pesvebi Georgian Dancers, very well choreographed by Shorena Barbakadze. The men’s athleticism dazzled more than the women’s less dramatic smiling gracefulness, especially as Botstein had opened some traditional cuts and gave us extended ballet music. In a scene that contains clear wedding-related echoes of Mendelssohn and Lohengrin, the Orientalized dance music introduced rhythms and orchestrations at once looking back to Ruslan and prefiguring episodes in (among other works) Khovanshchina and Prince Igor.

Heard at the fifth and final show August 5, the show had musical rewards. If Botstein’s baton elicited little nuance or propulsion, his American Symphony players showed their mettle. Hiring a purely Russophone cast was most welcome. Zavalny and Olga Tolkmit’s Tamara showed some assets. The bass-baritone’s mid-range is pliable and powerful, but top notes, especially in negotiating upward intervals, often lacked definition and substance. The attractive Tolkmit enacted obsession convincingly, but her plush-free, sometimes arrestingly powerful soprano tended towards bluntness, and she sang with little if any sense of legato. She couldn’t execute her entrance music’s bel canto-esque descants over the women’s chorus and too often subjected her phrasing to anachronistic parlando and even screaming.

All the other singers proved admirable and would be welcome revenants to American stages. Alexander Nesterenko’s powerful and sensuous tenor, musically deployed, made one regret Sinodal’s early exit from the score. Another tenor, Pavel Suliandziga, showed pleasantly buzzy, well-focused promise as the Messenger. Nadezhda Babintseva (an impassioned Angel, also sometimes dressed like Tamara) and Ekaterina Egorova, (Nanny) offered genuine Russian mezzo coloration. As Gudal, Tamara’s princely father, Andrey Valentii channeled authority and the welcomely old-fashioned Pimen/Gremin kind of rolling bass needed. Yakov Strizhak (Old Servant) shaped his deep if more lyrical bass beautifully. James Bagwell’s chorus—often a highlight at Bard events—highlighted some clear talent but was disappointing in terms of precision ensemble and linguistic crispness.  —David Shengold 

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