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Critic's Notebook: Peter Stein's marathon 'Demons'

July 12, 2010 |  2:30 pm
Lincoln Center Festival, for this year’s most ambitious offering, instructed us to arrive at the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan by 9:45 a.m. to catch the 10 o’clock ferry to Governors Island, and the dock was already crowded at 9:30 when I got there. It was 14 hours later when the ferry brought us back.

The atmosphere on this sunny Sunday in New York Harbor was that of a kind of giddy theater summer camp. A warehouse -- in which semi-comfortable bleachers and effective air conditioning had been installed --  became a home for two performances over the weekend for a nine-hour theatrical immersion into Dostoevsky’s immense novel of the budding 19th century Russian revolutionary movement, “The Demons” (also known as the “The Possessed” or “The Devils”). Lunch and dinner were served on picnic benches.

Mainly, though, this was a rare opportunity in the U.S. to witness the work of the high-minded 72-year-old German director Peter Stein, who is perhaps Europe’s most revered opera director and who is also known for long, uncompromising German theatrical spectacles, including a 21-hour presentation of Goethe’s complete “Faust” a decade ago.

Stein once helped foster the German rage for regietheater, or director’s theater, in opera. Now he  represents a neo-conservative reaction to a younger generation's courting of controversy with wild staging excesses by demanding a sophisticated faithfulness to the text. His famous collaborations in Europe with Pierre Boulez (Debussy’ “Pelleas et Melisande” and Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”) in the 1990s were extraordinary examples of musical and dramatic clarity, in which every note of music, every word of text and every stage picture was exquisitely engineered to fit precisely in place.

Originally asked by an Italian theater company in Turin to stage Albert Camus’ play “The Possessed,” Stein found that the French existentialist had oversimplified the socialist fervor and overheated religious debates in Dostoevsky’s dense novel. The director wanted plot, characters and ideas whole, and ultimately created and financed his own version in Italian, which he produced with 26 actors (including his Italian actress wife, Maddalena Crippa) and a pianist at his home in Umbria, where he now lives. Although the show was presented informally, it proved the sensation of the 2009 Italian theater season and is now touring on the international festival circuit.

Once again, this master theater craftsman has made a masterpiece of dramatic elegance and intelligibility. His goal was not so much to reinterpret Dostoevsky but, as he told the audience before Sunday’s performance, to retell the story.

There were filters, of course, but Stein’s is a structuralist German sensibility, and it was remarkable how much of the novel, including a censored chapter (now published as an appendix to the novel), that he is able to retain with careful reworking. The cast is all Italian, and the actors gestured like Italians. Hysterical Italians aren’t quite the same as their self-pitying Russian counterparts, but there is at least a family resemblance.

Fast-talking Russians sounded as though they were delivering rapid-paced patter in an Italian opera. A comically slow servant might have been a latter-day commedia dell’arte character. And we all know how good Italians look in clothes. The cut of revolutionaries’ suits (designed by Anna Maria Heinreich) was Prada-perfect.

And this cast was truly brilliant in its storytelling on a stage littered with only a few basic props.

The production began with Dostoevsky’s narrator, Grigoreiev (Andrea Nicolini), providing background, often accompanying himself on the piano as he did so, making it seem as though Stein had a fascinating new kind of hybrid theater in mind. In fact, he didn’t. Everything that followed was conventional, including the offstage bits of period piano pieces and generic percussion sound effects.

“The Demons” includes a pretty crazy cast of characters (why has there been no great Russian – or Italian or Czech -- opera based on it?) beginning with the unpredictable, decadent playboy Stavrogin (Ivan Alovisio), haunted by demons and with a knack for uprooting society. There’s bushy-bearded Stepan (Elia Schilton), the clownish old professor who in his youth was more than a half-century ahead of Dada, and it was all downhill from there. Stepan’s son, Peter, is a Russian Iago.

The clandestine circle of revolutionaries is quite a bunch, a gang in spiritual chaos that can’t shoot straight but sure can argue about the abolition of private property or whether God is merely another name for cheap Russian vodka. One nihilist shoots himself to prove he is God. Stepan’s melodramatic death in the arms of his protector, Varvara (Crippa), would make a modern Puccini jealous.

And yet to what end, other than the pleasure of leaving the city for a day of watching a skilled troupe perform with epic conviction? Maybe that’s inspiration enough. But as Stein points out in his program notes, “The Demons” is more, full of modern meaning, on what it has to say about how revolution, communism and terror come about.

It is theater’s job to create new meanings and context of classics, and enjoying a retelling on an island with a small but devoted audience (capacity was slightly more than 400) has a power. Ultimately, though, by being so faithful to his original source, Stein’s production made one more aware of how much even at nine hours he had to leave out yet with too little something extra added.

But Stein has another chance for Russian theatrical revolution in New York. In October, he will make his belated Metropolitan Opera debut directing Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” 

-- Mark Swed in New York

Photo: Elia Schilton as Stepan in "The Demons." Credit: Stephanie Berger / Lincoln Center Festival