Fate gave Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein a talent with many facets. He was a gifted pianist – one of the most prominent proponents of the Russian school of piano-playing – an indefatigable public figure, and the founder of the St Petersburg Conservatory, he was also a prolific composer who worked in a wide variety of musical genres. His legacy as a composer includes operas and symphonies, oratorios and concertos, instrumental works and lieder.
Among Anton Rubinstein´s operas there are works based on Russian history (The Battle of Kulikovo, Dmitry Donskoy), tales from the Bible (Moses, Sulamith, The Maccabees) and the history of Rome (Nero). The composer also drew on subjects from works of literature (his opera Feramors was based on Sir Thomas Moore´s poem Lalla-Rookh, and The Merchant Kalashnikov on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov). However, many of the works listed were rejected by theatres, while others managed only a few performances. It was only The Demon, written by Rubinstein in 1871, that made him popular as a composer.
The Demon added to a list of operas that embraced Orientalism, which had come into fashion at the beginning of the 1860s in all fields of art. Among the musical works with Oriental themes were Serov´s ballet Judith, Rimsky-Korsakov´s symphonic poem Antar, and the ballets – The Pharaoh´s Daughter, La Bayadère, and Le Roi Candaule – produced at the Mariinsky by Marius Petipa. In The Demon, Rubinstein created a vivid and soulful Eastern exoticism. "After the Lezginka in Ruslan and the Nubian dances in Les Troyens, I know of no better Oriental dances", wrote César Cui, a composer and music critic famous in the 19th century. Rubinstein masterfully contrasts natural scenes such as the furious storm and the lucid calm of evening in the mountains. He also employs contrast in the development of the action (the carousing in Gudal´s castle and the appearance of the funeral procession), and in the delineation of the main characters.
After the premiere, which took place in 1875 at the Mariinsky Theatre as a benefit performance for the singer Ivan Melnikov, the reviews announced that his part had completely overturned previous judgments on the composer, that the music of the opera "overflows with melodies", that the work contained nothing fanciful or affected, and that The Demon was a "genuine" opera, written by the confident hand of a master.
Success continued to accompany the opera. It was first revived at the Mariinsky in 1884, and a new production was staged in 1902 with sets by Konstantin Korovin and Alexander Golovin. In 1905, as part of his benefit, Fyodor Chaliapin took the part of the Demon for the first time, and manged reinterpret the role so extensively that he added a whole new shade of meaning to the character. Chaliapin´s Demon seemed to come straight from Vrubel´s painting, transforming from a fantastical vision into a powerful winged warrior. "With a beat of his non-existent wings," wrote one critic, "the Demon throws himself from one cliff to another, and there he draws himself up to his full height... Once more he is ready to battle with the heavens."
The Demon has travelled the theatres of the world. It has a place of honour in almost every opera theatre in Russia. In the last century, the opera was produced three times at the Kirov (Mariinsky) Theatre: in 1939, 1949, and 1964. In 2003, the Mariinsky Theatre turned to the opera again. A new production of the opera was staged under the direction of Valery Gergiev during the revival of the Saison Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
Thanks to its vivid exoticism, the gracefulness of its musical structure, the many arias and symphonic passages that have long been popular favourites, the opera even in concert performance attracts audiences with the most varied musical tastes.