NEW YORK, N.Y. – Lonely demon meets beautiful girl and falls in love. Girl is ambivalent. Demon kills off girl’s fiance. Girl flees to convent. Demon pursues her. Girl dies and goes to heaven. Demon is condemned to eternal solitude.
Stripped to its essentials, that’s the plot of Anton Rubinstein’s 1871 opera “Demon,” adapted from a poem of the same name by the Russian romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov. The lushly melodious opera remains popular in Russia, but it’s little known elsewhere — making it a natural choice for Bard College’s 15th annual SummerScape festival of the arts, which specializes in staging what founder (and college president) Leon Botstein considers unjustly neglected works.
“We don’t have any constraints here because we’re doing it exactly as we want to,” director Thaddeus Strassberger said in an interview earlier this month during a break from rehearsals on the campus 90 miles north of New York City. “Ninety-nine per cent of people coming to Bard will be seeing it for the first time.”
Strassberger acknowledges that, taken literally, the story might be hard for modern audiences to swallow. “You can’t just walk out the door in 2018 and have conversations with angels and demons or people think you’re a little bit crazy,” he said.
So Strassberger is focusing on the heroine, Tamara, a Georgian princess who never meets the man she’s engaged to. At the demon’s instigation, the fiance is killed by Tatars as his caravan is crossing the Caucasus Mountains on his way to the wedding.
“The engagement is kind of strange, it’s very similar to Lucia (di Lammermoor in the Donizetti opera) or any kind of arranged marriage,” Strassberger said. “The wedding was never really about her being in love with this guy. It’s a trick a patriarchal society can use on a young girl’s impressionable mind.”
As for the demon’s intrusion into her life — as well as an angel who ultimately rescues her — Strassberger said, “It isn’t necessarily something that visits her. She’s interested in something other than what her family has given her. In your own mind you could create an option considerably more interesting.”
In his staging, “The demon and the angel have actual forms,” he said. “They interact with her, they have a physical presence. But whether they exist when she is not communicating with them is another question. I don’t show them onstage having a rich life when she’s not there.”
Because she’s attracted to the demon, Strassberger said, “she starts to feel guilty. … It all starts to become a metaphor for filial duty, for what you’re supposed to do versus free agency.”
Strassberger said it’s important to note the opera is titled “Demon” rather than “The Demon.”
“Leon is very insistent on this,” he said. “In Russia there are no article adjectives, ‘the’ or ‘a.’ So if it’s ‘The Demon’ then it’s like there’s a baritone who’s standing there and he’s the demon. But if it’s ‘Demon,’ then it seems to us much more conceptual as to the existence as some sort of negative force.”
This is Strassberger’s sixth time directing an opera at Bard, assignments he manages as part of a busy international career that has taken him from Los Angeles and Washington to Scandinavia and Russia. He said he became fascinated with opera growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the local company drew top stars like Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti.
“Demon” was one of 20 operas composed by Rubinstein, best remembered as a virtuoso pianist and a teacher of composition whose pupils included Tchaikovsky.
It will be performed five times from July 27-Aug. 5 at Bard’s Fisher Center, with Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. The all-Russian cast features baritone Efim Zavalny in the title role and soprano Olga Tolkmit as Tamara. Strassberger said several dance numbers that are often cut will be performed by a Georgian dance troupe based in Brooklyn.