Devils are common in opera. It’s so much more fun to be evil onstage than to be tasked with depicting bland goodness. So here are a few operatic Satans or their equivalents, but not the usual suspects.
Anton Rubinstein’s opera Demon is rarely preformed in the West, but still enjoys popularity in Russia. The titular character is a fallen angel who who hates everything except Tamara – the soprano. He arranges to have her fiancé killed and attempts to win her love. She’s attracted to him, but eventually resists. Having done so, she falls dead and is carried to heaven. The ending is, of course, similar to Gounod’s Faust.
The late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was fond of the title part. He appeared in a complete semi-staged performance of the opera at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow in 2015. This was about the time his brain tumor was diagnosed. It killed him in 2017. The Liceu in Barcelona staged the opera in 2018. The show had been intended for Hvorostovsky.
Rubinstein’s music is that of Western Europe at the time of the opera’s composition – 1871. He was not in sympathy with the nationalistic demands of The Five. The composer was best known as a piano virtuoso and teacher. Tchaikovsky was his most renowned student. The video below presents the opera’s final portion with Hvorostovsky as the Demon and Amik Grigoryan as Tamara. It has English subtitles. If it goes dark an audio file is linked below it.
The great Russian bass Mark Reizen sings I am he whom you heard which occurs earlier in opera. Reizen was such a outstanding singer that he deserves a post of his own that I’ll get to soon.
Ferruccio Busoni worked on his opera Doktor Faust for the last 8 years of his life, but never managed to finish it. The opera was completed by his student Philipp Jarnach. In 1982, Antony Beaumont using material recently discovered, produced a longer version with a different ending. The work is occasionally staged. The Met did it in 2001 using the Jarnach version. It sounds like the music of its time. If you know Wozzeck nothing in Doktor Faust will surprise you save that Mephistopheles is a tenor. It’s also a lot longer than Berg’s first opera.
The opera contains two prologues, an intermezzo, and three scenes. The following excerpt is the conclusion of the second prologue. Faust accepts Mephistopheles as a servant. He demands that all his wishes be granted, to have all knowledge, and the power of genius. Mephistopheles, in return, says that Faust must serve him after death. Faust recoils at first, but Mephistopheles reminds him that his creditors and enemies are at the door. With Faust’s approval, Mephistopheles causes them to fall, dead. Then, with the chorus in the distance singing a ‘Credo’ on Easter morning, Faust signs the pact in blood, wondering what has become of his ‘Will’. He faints upon realizing that he has forfeited his soul. Mephistopheles gleefully takes the contract in hand. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is Faust, William Cochran is the Devil. Doktor Faust Prologue 2 finale
Robert le Diable was Meyerbeer’s first French opera. It set the standard for French Grand Opera that lasted for the rest of the 19th century. The composer fell out of favor in the 20th century, but has made something of a comeback in the 21st. Though the title is Robert the Devil, Robert is the devil’s son by a mortal woman. The devil goes by the name of Bertram in this opera. This invocation of the demons is from a 1985 production in Paris. Sam Ramey who was Bertram in that staging is in sensational form.
The last devil presented here is named Nick Shadow. He’s in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The 1951 opera set to a libretto by WH Auden (there’s a coauthor listed, but I don’t think he had much to do with the final product) was inspired by Hogarth’s 8 paintings with the same title as the opera. The canvases were produced in 1732–1734, then engraved in 1734, and published in print form in 1735. Stravinsky, who went through more changes in style than Picasso, was in a Mozart phase when he composed The Rake. Auden’s libretto was perfect for Stravinsky’s needs. It’s at least as good as the music to which it’s set.
Shadows aria Come Master…in youth the panting slave is in Act 2. The words are so well constructed that they’re worth quoting in their entirety. The baritone is Yannis François. The opera’s protagonist, Tom Rakewell, ends up alive, but mad.
Come Master, observe the host of mankind. How are they? Wretched! Why? Because they are not free! Why? Because the giddy multitude are driven by the unpredictable lust of the pleasures. And the sober few, are bound by the inflexible ought of their duty. Between which slaveries, there is nothing to choose! Would you be happy? Then learn to act freely. Would you act freely? Then learn to ignore those twin tyrants, of, appetites and conscience. Therefore, I counsel you Master. Take Baba the Hut to wife. Consider her picture once more. And as you do, so reflect upon my words. In youth, the panting slave pursues the fair evasive dame, then caught in colder fetters, woos wealth, office, or a name. Till old, dishonored, downcast, and failing in his wits, in virtues narrow cell, at last, the withered bondsman sits! That man, that man alone, his fate fulfills. For he alone, he alone is free who chooses what to will, and wills his choice as destiny. No man his future can foretell, no law his past explain, whom neither passion may compel nor reason can restrain.
Of course Gounod’s, Berlioz’, and Boito’s devils will remain center stage, but it’s comforting to know that there are others available.