The Demon was Anton Rubinstein's only successful opera. Its style and subject matter parallel those of Gounod's Faust. Composed in 1871, The Demon consists of a Prologue, three acts and an Apotheosis (Epilogue). The libretto is by Pavel A. Viskovatov, based on a scenario drafted by Rubinstein and Apollon Nidolayevich Maykov after the 1839 poem by Lermontov. The opera was first given in at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on January 25, 1875. The vocal score was published in 1874, the full score in 1876.
Until 1860, Lermontov's poem about a fallen angel had been banned in Russia as blasphemous. Rubinstein's opera initially suffered a similar fate, delaying its premiere. After the ban was lifted, however, Lermontov's tale, with its supernatural scenes and exotic setting, became one of the most popular narratives in all of Russia. Viskovatov's libretto tells the story of The Demon, an angel cast out of heaven, and his love for the Princess Tamara, whom he sees as his only chance at redemption. The Demon kills Tamara's fiancé, Prince Sinodal, whose death sends Tamara to a convent to mourn. There, the Demon approaches Tamara and entreats her to be with him. When she acquiesces, she dies, but angels arrive to reclaim her soul and bring her to heaven, leaving the Demon to continue in his eternal suffering.
Rubinstein called The Demon a "fantastic" opera, but its style lies firmly in the realm of Russian lyric opera; Rubinstein was more concerned with the psychological representation of the principal characters, the Demon and Tamara, than with special effects. The composer draws the Mephistophelean Demon through passages of passionate music, culminating in his romance at the end of Act Two, "Ne plach', ditya'" (Do not weep, child). This remains the most popular number in the opera, and is often performed separately. Tamara's sincerity and compassion come through in her most important solo, the romance, "Noch' tepla, noch' tikha" (The night is warm, the night is still), which takes place in the monastery scene in the third act. Some of Tchaikovsky's passages for Tatyana in Eugene Onegin derive from Rubinstein's music for Tamara in The Demon.
Rubinstein and Viskovatov create an exotic atmosphere by using the typical Russian representation of Islamic culture, derived from Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila. Prince Sinodal and his caravan, appearing in the last scene of Act One, provide the vehicle for stereotypical Muslim imagery and the modal inflections associated with it.
Parts of The Demon feature what might be called a nationalist character. These moments of folkish music are more a reaction to the growing influence of Balakirev's circle of nationalist composers than any inclination on the part of the composer himself. Rubinstein's early operas on Russian nationalist subjects failed, leading the composer to write that Russian nationalist operas simply could not be made. By the 1870s, however, the wave of nationalist composition was too overpowering for even Rubinstein to resist. For example, in the first act of The Demon we hear the girls' chorus, "Khodim mï k Aragve svetloy" (We go the bright Aragva), which is based on a Georgian folk song. In spite of Rubinstein's efforts, however, the opera suffered criticism from nationalist composers and writers even as it gained public favor.
Most impressive is the third act of the opera, which takes place at the convent and is almost entirely made up of a nearly 30-minute-long seduction scene involving the Demon and Tamara.The scene is not a duet in the conventional sense, for the two never really sing together. Instead, Rubinstein construct a series of romances that alternate between the characters, creating an atmosphere of opposition appropriate for the drama.