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Dimitrij: Grandest of Grand A.D.


Антонин Дворжак

“If the New World Symphony were not so overwhelmingly famous, audiences might very well realize that Dvořák was a committed composer of opera.” Thus did Gil Rose rue local wisdom. Virtually everyone knows and loves the New World Symphony, to say nothing of the “American” string quartet and more than a handful of other orchestral and chamber works. Yet Dvořák himself delighted in the stage. Just two months before his death, he stated in an interview that his “main inclination was towards dramatic composition.”

This must surprise most music lovers outside of the Czech Republic, where his operas are far better known. And it is worth recalling that between 1870 and 1903, shortly before his death, Dvořák wrote no fewer than 10 operas, of varying styles and characters; not counting revisions and remountings, that averages an opera every three years of his maturity.

He was certainly to some degree following in the footsteps of Smetana, who had by 1870 (the date of Dvořák’s first attempted opera) already produced three grand operas on subjects drawn from Czech history as well as his most popular, the charming village comedy The Bartered Bride. Although Smetana was to write four more operas especially in the comic vein, and although he and Dvořák were therefore in a sense rivals for the audience’s attention, the two composers’ operas were actually rather different in character. Smetana carefully and consciously created a nationalistic opera, emphasizing at every point the very “Czechness” of the work.

Dvořák may have been just as firm a national patriot as Smetana, but his operas tended to draw upon a broader Slavic sensibility, rather than simply Czech. This is particularly true of his serious operas. Comic operas such as The King and the Charcoal Burner, The Stubborn Lovers, or The Jacobin were relatively close in character to Smetana’s lighter operas. But Dimitrij, the grandest of his grand operas, takes a significant topic from Russian history, one that opera lovers know very well from Moussorgsky Boris Godunov.

A case in point is his opera Dimitrij, which is being produced in a concert performance by Odyssey Opera on Friday at 7:30pm in Jordan Hall. Opera lovers who are familiar with Musorgsky’s great opera will remember that there is a character who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne, but who is generally called “the false Dmitri.” This is the same character after whom Dvořák titled his most important grand opera.

But there is more than just Dimitrij himself; Dvořák’s opera actually continues the plot from about the point where Boris Godunov left off. In Musorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov was the usurper to the throne, having murdered the young child Dmitri, the son of Ivan the Terrible and his wife Marfa. When a pretender appears claiming to be this person, Boris becomes unhinged, sure that he has in fact murdered the child and terrified that this new Dmitri is the ghost of his victim.  Dvořák’s opera opens in 1604. Several characters in Moussorgsky’s opera return in Dimitrij: the pretender himself, Boris’s children Xenia and Fyodor; Marina, the Polish aristocrat (now Dimitrij’s wife), who is attempting to use him to gain power in Russia; and the wily Boyar Shuisky.

Marfa knows that the young Dimitrij is not her son, but she is willing to swear that he is in order to get revenge on Boris for the death of her child and to retain power behind the throne. Marina is also trying to manipulate Dimitrij. The opposition of these two strong women is a large part of the plot of Dimitrij. As with Musorgsky’s opera, the populace also plays a considerable role in substantial choral scenes, and for these Dvořák showed a particular gift. And in this case, too, he enjoyed the gift of a strong libretto.

After the first successful production of Dimitrij in Prague in 1882, Dvořák made some small adjustments. Later when he was in America in the early 1890s, he reworked it considerably, to approach more closely the style of Wagner’s music, which had fascinated him from an early stage in his life when he played viola in an orchestral concert conducted by Wagner. During his American years, he was very close to Anton Seidl, then regarded as perhaps the finest Wagner conductor in the world. The revised version was performed in Prague at the end of 1894. But finally near the very end of his life Dvořák made still more adjustments undoing some of the elements of the American revision, and something like this was performed by his son-in-law Kovařic shortly after the composer’s death.

All of these changes make it very hard now to mount the production of Dimitrij because the director or conductor had to decide first of all what version to use or whether to mix parts of different versions. Happily in 2004 there appeared a critical edition of the score that clarifies the problems and determines what presumably Dvořák wanted in the end. It is this score that Gil Rose will conduct in concert version on Friday night. Dimitrij is a long opera in four acts, cast in the large-scale style of French grand opera. Here there will be one intermission between acts two and three. (This edition has had only two previous performances in the United States, both undertaken by choral rather than operatic organizations, in New York and Oregon.)

Another difficulty with mounting a work by Dvořák or Smetana in America is the language question. Although an increasing number of singers can sing Russian acceptably, it is still rare to find singers who are at home with Czech. For that reason, three of the principals in Friday’s performance come from the Czech Republic, many of the smaller parts are sung by Boston-area musicians. Dimitrij is interpreted by Aleš Briscein (tenor), Marinaa by Dana Burešová (soprano), and Xenie by Olga Jelínková (soprano); Russian soprano Irina Mishura is Marfa. Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss essays Boyar Šujskij.

Opera Odyssey has created a tradition in the last three years of opening the Boston fall season with a large concert opera that is unlikely ever to be offered here in a staged version. Odyssey’s versions with well-chosen cast and orchestra have given local opera buffs successful encounters with something unusual. All of these performances have been sold out and received with wild enthusiasm. Dvořák’s time comes this Friday.

Conductor Gil Rose has said, “I hope that people will take their love of Dvořák’s symphonies and chamber works and open their ears to some new Dvořák. I am sure it will please; the three and a half hours will go by very quickly. His music moves off the page, it does not dawdle.”

Dimitrij ‘s single performance takes place at Jordan Hall on Friday, September 17, at 7:30pm. Tickets are available or by calling 617-826-1626.

See related review here.

The season to follow includes a mouth-watering series of operas based on works by Oscar Wilde: Lowell Lieberman’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, semistaged in Jordan Hall on November 18; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s The Importance of Being Earnest, fully staged at the Wimberly Theater, March 17 and 19; and Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) in concert at Jordan Hall on April 14. To complete this “Wilde season,” Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (in which the leading character Bunthorne is a satire of Wilde), will be fully staged at the Boston University Theater on June 3 and 4.]


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dvořák was not the only famous composer who wrote lots of operas, of which hardly any get performed. Tchaikovsky wrote 11, of which only two really hold the boards; and Rimsky-Korsakov wrote 16, some of which are heard of, but scarcely ever heard. It’s possible that they just don’t translate, culturally. I really doubt that even English-speaking Germans would get Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Comment by Vance Koven — September 13, 2016 at 9:19 pm

  2. Do you think Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” is neglected in the U.S. because no one wants to hear a whole opera about Noah’s wife? Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times last week that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that students on culture quizzes thought Joan of Arc must be that biblically unnamed figure (Joan of Ark). I won’t venture to say what people identify as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “le Coq d’Or.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — September 14, 2016 at 12:06 am

  3. This performance was truly a revelation. A previously unknown facet of Dvorak’s art was discovered to a great joy. If was apparent quite soon into the opera that it was conceived and done in a Grand Opera style. I was amused at times to hear strong references to Aida and Rigoletto but also stylistic hints of Wagner. The music was amazing by conveying Russian and Polish characters, certainly by the end of 19th century a composer of Dvorak’s magnitude knew how to do that but still the mastery of the composition and counterpoint was stunning.
    Another equally huge reason why the performance was a gleaming success was the employ of perhaps the best Czech singers of the day which gave the work an unsurpassed finesse. I imagine we all have to thank the sponsor of this event Mr. Randolph Fuller for making it possible for us simple mortals to enjoy this operatic masterpiece in the greatest possible execution in Boston, place quite remote from Moscow and Prague. Along that thought one would think we should have Un Ballo in Maschera appropriated and played every season here, but that is another story… Dimitrij was outstanding and I hope we will hear more of such great less-known operas as Odyssey Opera presents to us.

    Comment by Leda Lebedkina — September 26, 2016 at 2:38 pm

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