The devil's party

Music - Peter Conrad succumbs to the demonic creativity of Rubinstein's rare opera

Where would we be without the devil? Probably still in the boring, bucolically innocent garden, doing a bit of decorous weeding. The serpentine naysayer is the promoter of inquiring intellect and of rebellious fantasy; we ought to say thankful prayers to him every evening. My own bout of Satanism has been provoked by Anton Rubinstein's rare and underrated opera The Demon, which Valery Gergiev and his Kirov troupe from St Petersburg have just performed at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in a production by Lev Dodin.

God may be defunct, but we all possess our resident demons: the word simply refers to a spirit, an energetic driving force that impels us to ask questions or dream up images. It is Christianity, fearfully prohibitive, that gave it a diabolical meaning. Rubinstein's bogey comes from a narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov, a fractious Byronic outsider who - describing himself as "world-exiled, hunted everywhere" - died in a pointless duel in 1841. Perched in midair, Lermontov's demon broods over a sanctimonious world that has expelled him. He is no Satan, even though, like the serpent ingratiating himself with Eve, he seduces a nun from whom he hopes to receive absolution. Rather, he is a force of demonic creativity, whose elemental freedom terrifies a smugly pious society.

For Rubinstein, the demon's grudge against heaven's courtly cabals had a miserably personal relevance. Rubinstein single-handedly invented Russia's musical culture; his compatriots paid him back by reviling him. His career as a globe-trotting pianist convinced him that the performer could be a heroic figure, dramatising the frenzy and ferment of inspiration as he improvised at the keyboard. Ever since Paganini's demented fiddling, virtuosity like his had been attributed to the devil's intercession: did the player gain such skills at the cost of his soul? Rubinstein knew that the secret was professional training, not an infernal pact. He therefore established the first Russian conservatory, and educated the laggard public by giving a series of encyclopaedic concerts. In one programme, he played a synopsis of musical history from Byrd to Haydn; in his tribute to Beethoven, whom he idolised, he performed eight sonatas in a single session.

Yet his colleagues disowned him. They were proud to be amateurs, holding on to sinecures in the imperial civil service and indulging in music in their spare time: Borodin was a chemist, Rimsky-Korsakov a naval officer, Cesar Cui a military engineer. As nationalists, they thought that Russian music should derive from folk songs, and they condemned Rubinstein's cosmopolitanism. His family were German Jews, so such criticism was often cryptically anti-Semitic. He unrepentantly considered music itself to be "a German art"; despairing of acceptance, he spent the last years of his life exiled in Dresden. By taking the Paris production of The Demon into the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre, where it was first performed in 1875, Gergiev makes amends for this acrimonious and unjust history. Slavophiles have always claimed that Rubinstein's opera sounds murkily Teutonic, like Schumann at his most ponderous; Gergiev and his orchestra give it an authentically national sound - or rather they demonstrate the way that it makes audible a split within Russia itself.

An orthodox society protects itself with patriarchal chants and militaristic choruses; an old retainer, guarding the unquiet sleep of the Christians, taps on a chunk of metal to keep the spirits of the night at bay. But, beyond these paranoid encampments, a more savage, sensual music hovers in the air. Prince Sinodal, resting overnight in the remote steppes, sings an erotic reverie in languorous Arabian cadences, and is at once attacked by Tartars. His death is never avenged: as in Borodin's Prince Igor, the empire has no power over its wild outlands. Although Rubinstein admired the contrapuntal discipline of Bach and the symphonic dialectics of Beethoven, his score abounds in melodies that are disturbing because sinuously exotic and irrational, like the Polovtsian dances in Prince Igor or the cavorting of the Persian slaves before an assassination in Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina. His demon is alarming because he is such a plaintive, mellifluous singer. Satan in Paradise Lost dazzles Eve with philosophical logic, but here the devil's most irresistible weapon is his suave, alluring voice, not his nimble mind.

Dodin vowed that his production would humanise the demon, and Yevgeni Nikitin plays the role without horns, leathery wings or sulphurous sneering. A sallow-faced, disaffected introvert, he is an apt colleague for the bored, aimlessly destructive protagonists of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Pique-Dame, which the Kirov also presented during its season at the Chatelet. He hardly needs to bestir himself, because his victim Tamara is so eager to succumb, and interns herself in a convent in the hope of escaping from the desire he inflames. With her feverish coloratura and slithering scales, the soprano Marina Mescheriakova exactly catches the character's moral instability: for Tamara, too, vocal virtuosity is a symptom of the devilish exhilaration excited by music.

An angel (superbly sung by Natalia Evstafieva) points upwards in vain, since no God occupies the black, thundery sky. The demon sobs for a while when Tamara cheats him of redemption, then settles back into the hunched, depressive posture from which he roused himself at the beginning - waiting, perhaps, for Godot, and still yearning for that merciful extinction which Russians call nitchevo. You can easily imagine him, a few decades after 1875, converting to nihilism and experimenting with new ways of cracking the stale, encrusted world apart. The devil's party, as William Blake called it, has always voted for revolution.

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