Rare New U.S. Staging Of Anton Rubinstein's DEMON Highlights Opera At Bard SummerScape
Committed since its inception to reviving important but neglected operas, Bard SummerScape has long proven itself "an indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape" (Musical America). Offering a rare new American production of Demon by Anton Rubinstein as its operatic centerpiece, this year's immersion in "Rimsky-Korsakov and His World" is no exception. With Olga Tolkmit and Efim Zavalny heading an all-Russian cast in an original staging by renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger, with the support of the American Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of music director and festival co-artistic director Leon Botstein, Demon runs for five performances between July 27 and August 5, with an Opera Talk, free and open to the public, before the matinee on July 29. SummerScape 2018 also provides the chance to see Rimsky-Korsakov's seldom-staged operas Mozart and Salieri (August 18) and The Tsar's Bride (August 19) during the 29th annual Bard Music Festival. Anchored by the Bard Festival Chorale under the direction of James Bagwell, all three presentations take place on Bard's glorious Hudson Valley campus in the striking Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center. As Time Out New York notes, "Botstein and Bard SummerScape show courage, foresight and great imagination, honoring operas that larger institutions are content to ignore."
It was Anton Rubinstein (1829-94), Rimsky-Korsakov's senior by 15 years, who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, now named for the younger composer. Both men had an enormous influence on the next generation of Russian composition, and although in his lifetime Rubinstein was best known as a keyboard virtuoso and star pedagogue whose students included Tchaikovsky, he was also a prolific composer with no fewer than 20 operas to his name. The most popular of these was Demon (1871), one of the two operas mounted most often in 19th-century Russia, and the country's first to be produced in Britain. Yet despite its rich choruses and fiery libretto, today Rubinstein's masterpiece has fallen into neglect and is almost never staged in the English-speaking world.
Composed in three acts to a libretto by Pavel Viskovatov, Demon was based on a narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov that was initially banned as sacrilegious. Like the poem, Rubinstein's opera depicts a demon, or fallen angel, who meets Tamara, a mortal princess, and falls desperately in love, trying everything in his power to seduce her. Tamara's struggle to resist him becomes a battle not only for her soul but for the fate of the earth itself. When at last she weakens, the price of her redemption is death, and the demon is condemned to eternal solitude.
On the few occasions it has been heard in the West, Demon has received a warm welcome. After a concert performance by the Kirov Opera at the 2003 Lincoln Center Festival, the New York Times admired the composer's "sure lyrical gift and command of the orchestra," while a 2009 London presentation prompted Gramophone to admire "Rubinstein's colourful and lyrically expressive score." As The Independent declared: "You can see why it did, and still does, carry the wow factor in Russia."
Bard's full staging represents an all-too-rare opportunity to see Rubinstein's opera mounted outside the composer's homeland. Conceived expressly for SummerScape 2018, the new production is by renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger, whose previous SummerScape productions are among Bard's most resounding success stories. The Financial Times declared: "Les Huguenots in Bard's staging is a thriller from beginning to end. ... Five Stars." New York magazine named his treatment of Der ferne Klang one of the "Top Ten Classical Music Events of 2010"; the Wall Street Journal called his take on Le roi malgré lui "hilarious"; and the New York Times found his handling of The Wreckers "extraordinarily successful." As for his treatment of Oresteia by Rubinstein's contemporary Sergei Taneyev, which marked the opera's first fully staged production outside Russia, it was nominated for a 2014 International Opera Award.
Making his U.S. debut in Demon's title role is baritone Efim Zavalny, first prize-winner at the International Shtokolov Vocalists' Competition. Singing opposite him as Tamara is soprano Olga Tolkmit, a nominee for Russia's prestigious Golden Mask Award, in her third major role at Bard; having impressed the Financial Times with her "resonant, bright-voiced soprano" in Oresteia, she returned to grace Dvo?ák's Dimitrij last summer. Belarusian bass Andrey Valentiy, who has appeared at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and Milan's La Scala, sings Tamara's father, Prince Gudal. Her Nanny is portrayed by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Egorova, a frequent leading lady at St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Opera. Likewise tenor Alexander Nesterenko, who sings Tamara's fiancé, Prince Sinodal, regularly headlines productions at Moscow's Stanislavsky Opera. Bard's all-Russian cast is completed by bass-baritone Yakov Strizhak as Sinodal's Old Servant, mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Babintseva as the Angel, and tenor Pavel Sulyandziga as the Messenger. The opera's thrilling dance sequences will be performed by the highly respected Georgian dance troupe, Pesvebi Georgian Dancers.
Sets for Demon are designed by Paul Tate dePoo III, who was nominated for a 2017 Helen Hayes Award. The production will be enhanced by video projections from Greg Emetaz, known for his work for New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera, with lighting design by JAX Messenger, whose work on Oresteia helped ensure that "Strassberger's cohesive vision ... was searingly powerful" (Opera News). Demon's costume design is by Obie Award-winner Kaye Voyce, whose extensive credits range from Broadway to the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as numerous Bard theater and dance productions.
No 19th-century composer contributed more substantially to Russia's opera repertoire than Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote 16 examples of the genre. Based on the same Pushkin verse drama that inspired Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, his one-act opera Mozart and Salieri covers the same territory, animating the rumor that Salieri, official composer of Vienna's Hapsburg court, so envied Mozart's genius that he was driven to poison him. Although the opera is rarely mounted even in Russia, this is to be regretted, according to the New York Times, which - citing "the opera's success and originality" - ranked it among the composer's "most interesting work."
Forming the second half of a program exploring "Domestic Music Making in Russia," Bard's presentation of the opera stars tenor Gerard Schneider, whose "imposing tenor" (Wall Street Journal) "stole the show" (Allegri con Fuoco) in SummerScape 2016's mainstage production of Iris. Schneider sings the role of Mozart, with Grammy nominee Mikhail Svetlov, who impressed the Washington Post with his "titanic, all-encompassing bass," as the composer's nemesis, Salieri.
There will be a talk before the concert by festival co-artistic director Christopher Gibbs, who is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.
For his tenth opera, Rimsky-Korsakov combined the fantastic with the historical, turning to the so-called Time of Troubles, the same period of Russian history that inspired Boris Godunov and SummerScape 2017's Dimitrij. Based on a play by Lev Mey, The Tsar's Bride depicts Marfa, the merchant's daughter whom Ivan the Terrible (a silent role, in accordance with Tsarist censorship laws) chooses from among thousands of pretty girls as his third wife. Unfortunately she is already in love with another and subject to the unwanted attentions of a third, who attempts to give her a love potion. When poison is substituted, and the man she loves is blamed and executed, Marfa loses her mind, providing the opera with a bona fide mad scene. Although the familiar Slava anthem functions throughout as a leitmotif, Rimsky-Korsakov explained that he intended The Tsar's Bride as a reaction against Wagner's ideas, and aimed for "cantilena par excellence." This proved successful in his homeland, where the opera was warmly welcomed at its premiere, and has remained in regular rotation ever since. In the West, by contrast, revivals are rare. Yet The Tsar's Bride is "an upfront rumbustious melodrama, packed with big tunes and thrilling climaxes" (The Telegraph, UK). Moreover, it offers "a compelling study of power and powerlessness" (The Independent, UK), and has "one of the most lyrical of all Rimsky-Korsakov scores" (New York Times).
Bard's semi-staged production features The Orchestra Now (T?N), Bard's graduate training orchestra, under Botstein's leadership. In the title role of Marfa, it stars Lyubov Petrova, "a soprano of ravishing, changeable beauty, blazing high notes and magnetic stage presence" (Opera News). Demon's Andrey Valentiy sings Marfa's father, Vasily Sobakin, and Mozart and Salieri's Gerard Schneider takes the role of her falsely accused suitor, Ivan Likov. Efim Zavalny, the Demon himself, plays her third admirer, Grigory Gryaznoy, with mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Babintseva, who "brought the house down" (RTE) on tour with the Moscow State Opera, as Lyubasha, his murderous mistress. Joel Sorensen, "a beautifully expressive tenor, gifted at characterization" (The Independent, UK), appears as the Tsar's physician, Yelisey Bomeliy, with bass-baritone Yakov Strizhak, first-prize-winner at the Rachmaninov International Music Competition, as an oprichnik, or member of the imperial police force. Rounding out Bard's stellar cast as Petrovna, the Sobakins' housekeeper, is mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz, winner of the female division at Carnegie Hall's Nico Castel International Master Singer Competition; she returns to the festival after a series of "consistently excellent" (New York Arts) performances in previous SummerScape seasons.
With lighting by Anshuman Bhatia, named a "Young Designer to Watch" by Live Design magazine, Bard's semi-staged production is designed and directed by Doug Fitch, the co-founder of Giants Are Small. Consistently cited as benchmarks of innovation, his New York Philharmonic collaborations include Le Grand Macabre, named "Best Opera of the Year" by the New York Times, New York magazine, and Time Out New York; and The Cunning Little Vixen, chosen as the "Best Classical Event of the Year" by New York.
Before the opera, there will be a talk by Bard's 2018 Scholar-in-Residence, Marina Frolova-Walker, author of Russian Music and Nationalism: from Glinka to Stalin and editor of the forthcoming volume Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.
Since the opening of the Fisher Center at Bard, Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have been responsible for championing and restoring to the stage a growing number of important but long-neglected operas. All these presentations and their remarkable stagings have been warmly received by audiences and critics alike - not least, last season's full staging of Dvo?ák's Dimitrij. The New York Times admired Bard's "simple and effective updated production," called the "vivid choral scenes ... a triumph for the impressive Bard Festival Chorale," and concluded: "Mr. Botstein drew vibrant playing and a well-paced performance from the American Symphony Orchestra. ... He, the festival and this hard-working cast deserve thanks." As Musical America recognizes: "Bard's annual opera has become an indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape."
Tickets for all Bard SummerScape events are now on sale. For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.