The Demon - Mariinsky Theatre / Gergiev - Barbican, 31 January 2009
Anton Rubinstein's The Demon is nothing like as well-known or as frequently performed as his pupil Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. There are reasons for that. It's dramatic - but the story takes a while to get going. It's melodic - but the tunes are not 'quite' memorable. It has moments of startling innovation - but they're over all too soon don't add up to a truly inventive whole in the way that even the least of Tchaikovsky's operas do.
OK, these are pretty fundamental flaws. But Gergiev and the Mariinsky did their utmost to sweep them aside, in a performance of such glorious, sizzling vitality you could forget it was just a row of guys singing in front of an orchestra.
Major credit must go to Evgeny Nikitin in the title role, a truly diabolical demon.
Ladies and gentlemen, he has a tattoo on his *head*.
Yes, a tattooed head - suck on that, Rene Pape. Look!...
Not to mention tattoos on his knuckle-dustered hands and who knows how many more hidden up his long sleeves. A truly great actor, who 'is' rather than 'does', he made a fearsome and compelling stage presence, tinged with menace even in the sweetest of his serenades to Tamara, the beautiful human he has fallen for.
And the voice! As if any further qualifications were necessary, he possesses a luxurious velvety bass-baritone that seems to emerge as nature intended, unfettered by the technical proficiency that shapes and colours every note.
Irma Gigolaty, trussed and bustled like an Victorian governess, and the sturdy tenor Evgeny Akimov played Tamara and her fiance. Neither were quite perfectly cast - she sounded as if she'd rather be singing Vissi d'arte, he Questa O Quella - but they did a decent enough job.
The deep, oily basses of Gennady Bezzubenkov and Grigory Karasev lent an unmistakeably Russian flavour, and Kristina Kapustinskaya was back for a second striking performance, this time as Tamara's guardian angel. Perched behind the orchestra, her voice floated over them like a ribbon of dark smoke.
But once again it was Gergiev's star that shone most brightly. The clangour of the battle scene, the subtlest of string pianissimi, the nod to Russian liturgical chant - those all-too-brief flashes of Rubinstein's genius that elevate this work above the merely pedestrian - these were shaped lovingly and with the utmost craftsmanship.
Another time, another place, another company and this would have been just another also-ran opera, a rightly-forgotten relic. But Gergiev and the Mariinsky proved the power of a great performance.