Operatic history is strewn with the casualties of changing fashion.
Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon – the second offering in the Mariinsky Theatre’s brief residency at the Barbican – is just such a piece: a bold, often innovative, creation, precursor to so much that would quickly overshadow it. With tolling tam-tam and a nod to Boito’s Mephistopheles it roars into its choral Prologue, spirits of Heaven and Hell vying for supremacy. Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Chorus are at once the dark, grainy, genuine article. There’s a touch of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini in the whirlwind (how ironical, in the light of Rubinstein’s rudeness over Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, that the younger man should do everything so much better than his celebrated predecessor) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ornate way with vocal lines will be a distinctive feature of the opening scenes. You can see why it did, and still does, carry the wow factor in Russia.
There are some very effective scenes in The Demon. There’s the scene where our arrogant protagonist (and it’s one hell of a role) lulls the heroine’s betrothed into a big, fateful, sleep and Gergiev, invoking the most tremulous pianissimo imaginable in his strings, seemed to invoke Berlioz along with it; and there’s the climactic scene of act one where the silver-tongued Demon – in an absolutely corking aria – strives to lure the heroine Tamara into an immortal embrace, thus ending his eternal loneliness. Yevgeny Nikitin delivered such soaring, charismatic, legati at this point that you might almost have believed his promise to renounce evil. He is precisely what the role and the opera needs: physically, vocally, a complete star. Alright, so the voice is a little rough around the break and he deploys that irritating East European mannerism of flattening pitch as an expressive device. But, in every other respect, wow.
Character is, of course, part and parcel of Mariinsky voices. Refinement is harder to find - and both the tenor, Yevgeny Akimov, and the soprano, Irma Gigolaty, possessors of big open sounds, proved less able to manage the bel canto enticements. She did rise to the heavily protracted (rather too protracted) final scene with some whopping notes and much emotive passion. But as the angels transported her soul heavenward all I was thinking was how much more memorably Tchaikovsky despatched Herman’s wounded soul into the hereafter at the close of The Queen of Spades.
Still, good to have the Mariinsky company exporting something they plainly love so much.