One thing is certain: Dvořák’s Dimitrij is grand opera. Running very close to four hours (including intermission) as performed at Jordan Hall Friday evening by the forces of Odyssey Opera conducted by Gil Rose, the work nevertheless rewarded out attention with a rich orchestral score, a fine libretto, and extraordinary singing.
Dvořák is one of the most popular composers in American concert halls, but with the exception of Russalka, his operas are all but unknown outside of the Czech Republic. And even if several of the others may have a tenuous presence here, they are mostly comic operas more or less in the pattern of Smetana’s popular Bartered Bride. By contrast, Dimitrij, a grand opera in the strict sense of the term, calls for large forces telling a story of historical significance and epic scope. Meyerbeer, whose works are scarcely ever performed today set the standard for this sort of entertainment. Their lavish sets, large casts including starry high-priced singers, and frequent ballets or special effects made them exceedingly expensive to produce.
In the last three years, Odyssey Opera has opened the Boston season with a concert performance of a large opera. These have been Wagner’s Rienzi, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, and Massenet’s Le Cid. Wagner of course is known for large, somewhat unwieldy, but magnificent works. Though both Korngold and Massenet have reputations as opera composers, neither is as actively present in our musical life as is Dvořák. I think it is safe to say that the opportunity to hear Dimitrij in a live performance could bring about the strongest reevaluation of a composer as anything that Gil Rose has done yet. The people that I chatted with at intermission and while leaving Jordan Hall at the end of the evening all expressed astonishment at this Dvořák whom no one knew.
Advance publicity about Dimitrij as well as Timothy Cheek’s excellent notes in the program made it clear to the opera-loving audience that the plot of Dimitrij follows chronologically on that of Mussorgsky’s most famous opera Boris Godunov. In the Mussorgsky opera, Dmitri (as he name is spelled in Russian) is a runaway novice monk who escapes to Poland and pretends to be the Ivan the Terrible’s son who had died mysteriously in early childhood. Mussorgsky’s opera, based on Pushkin’s tragedy of the same name, holds that Boris was responsible for the death of Dmitrj to pave his own way to the throne. The false Dmitri, as he is called in Mussorgsky’s opera, is a knowing liar, pursuing power for his own selfish reasons, with the aid of Catholic Poland.
Dvořák’s Dimitrij stands as quite a different character. He firmly believes that he is the son of Ivan the Terrible, stolen in infancy for protection and raised in Poland. There he falls in love with and marries Marina, who helps organize a Polish army to lead him back into Russia, there to take power as the true Tsar, the genuine son of Ivan—and to bring her to power with him.
In Moscow, Poles and Russians dissent for religious reasons (Catholic versus Orthodox) as to the authenticity of Dimitrij. The large chorus in the opera represents both Poles and Russians at different times, taking opposing sides. People demand proof of Dimitrij’s identity, and to that end they accept the word of the widow of Ivan the Terrible, Marfa, the mother of the child Dimitrij. Although she knows that this Dimitrij is not her son, she goes along with the charade in order to recover some of her own power and to get back at the supporters of Boris Godunov who had taken power when her husband died.
Friday’s version, from Milan Pospíšil’s 2004 critical edition, clarifies the several revisions that Dvořák made over the years into a presumed “final wishes” edition. This was not only its first Boston performance but also, in fact, a first American performance of this edition, since two previous concert performances of the opera in the United States took place before Pospíšil published.
The excellent libretto by Marie Červinková-Reigrová establishes the personalities and desires of the different characters effectively, and then goes on to put them in dramatic opposition to one another. Dvořák creates effective music for his diverse characters, which we heard effectively sung by a mixture of local and imported singers.
The wily Shuisky (spelled Šujskij in Czech), who opposes Dimitrij as Tsar was strongly played by Mark S. Doss, who had a lot of Czech to learn, including a near patter song section; he proved strong in his opposition to the presumed Tsar throughout. (Though Dvořák’s libretto doesn’t make anything of it, the historical Shuisky was eager to get the throne for himself.). In the relatively small but vital role as Marfa, the widow of Ivan the Terrible, Russian-born Irina Mishura, dramatically affirmed falsely that Dimitrij was in fact her son; in the last act, asked to reaffirm that statement under sacred oath, she wavered in agony.
Three major stars of the Czech operatic stage came to Boston to impersonate the three major lengthy and demanding parts, and each contributed greatly to the satisfaction and success of the evening.
Olga Jelínková played Xenia, the daughter of Boris Godunov, who lamented the deaths of the rest of her family and felt herself constantly in danger from the supporters of Dimitrij. Her part is half lamenting and half growing into love music, as she realizes that Dimitrij has fallen in love with her and has protected her from her enemies. Her clear soprano voice expressed these two principal aspects of the role effectively.
Dana Burešova conjured power in the dramatic role of Marina, Dimitrij’s Polish wife, who knows the secret of his birth but who expects to attain power through him. Although working in a concert performance with no explicit blocking, she made highly effective use of a rust colored cape attached at the wrists, with which even the small gestures expressed her self-confidence and drive for dominance. The clarity and power of her soprano voice projected her wily, self-interested character brilliantly. The third act scene in which—jealous at Dimitrij’s evident attraction to Xenia—she reveals the secret that he is an imposter and threatens to reveal it if he leaves her, constitutes one of the dramatic highlights of the score.
The exceptionally demanding title role of Dimitrij, one that feels as long and challenging as the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried, fell to tenor Aleš Briscein, who sustained the lengthy part with stalwart brilliance when he needed to express his power and with melting lyricism in his love scene with Xenia.
The Odyssey Opera Chorus, trained by William Cutter with the help of Czech coach Becca Kenneally, undertook the challenge of learning an enormous part in a language hardly ever sung by trained singers in this country; in doing so they contributed mightily to the overall success. The Odyssey Opera Orchestra, having prepared an exceptionally lengthy score, running almost twice as long as the average concert, and consisting of music that none of them had ever played before, under the knowledgeable and powerful direction of Gil Rose, deserved and received its own plaudits for the evening.
This performance of Dimitrij represents the fourth time in as many years that Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera have provided an exceptionally special and rare musical experience to Boston opera lovers. For that, hearty thanks.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.