As a concept, Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij is hard to beat. Its libretto is a sequel to another opera, Boris Godunov, and its score is by a composer whose one popular opera is widely beloved (at least by me) and thus seems to promise hidden riches. Also, it is a four-act almost-grand opera in Czech which premiered in 1882, which is a) really, really late for grand opera and b) I’m guessing not many of us have seen a Czech grand opera. That’s a lot of intriguing novelty! Also, Dvořák apparently never heard Musorgsky’s opera and his musical style is, well, very different.
Thanks to Odyssey Opera in Boston, I am deprived of Czech grand opera, and Dimitrij, no longer. This was its Boston premiere, and Odyssey Opera’s concert performance in Jordan Hall last Friday was more than legit. This is a small company, and I give them a lot of credit for taking a chance and putting on a convincing performance of a totally unknown and huge opera (four hours in Czech with a big chorus and orchestra!) when they could have done another Traviata. I enjoyed this evening far more than my extreme delay in reviewing it may imply.
That being said, this opera is an odd combination of the totally novel and the extremely familiar. It sounds pretty much like standard Dvořák: very lyrical for the large scale of the events, tuneful, and never failing to add more triangle. There are big fight scenes and many, many concertante ensembles and they’re all musically interesting and sometimes downright exciting. But structurally, it’s old-fashioned, never moving on to the next plot point until the possibilities of the current one have been fully exhausted. (It’s pan-Slavic in subject but tirelessly Meyerbeerian in dramaturgy.*) With only one intermission and, I believe, no cuts, it was a very long evening.
But with two intermissions and some enthusiastic trimming of the score, I think it could work dramatically. Marie Červinková-Riegrová’s libretto has interesting characters and regular melodramatic revelations and reversals. Dimitrij, the Pretender of Boris, is kind of the good guy, and takes control over a floundering Russia after Ivan the Terrible’s widow swears that he actually is her long-lost son (he isn’t and she knows it). But he, it turns out, is just a pawn of plotting Polish princess Marina, Dimitrij’s wife and the protagonist of Boris’s Polish Act. Then he is lured away by Boris’s charming soprano daughter, Xenie (historical events entangled with a private love triangle: that’s how you know you’re in a grand opera), and, well, things turn out badly. Dimitrij is ultimately unmasked and then shot by perennial plotter Shiusky. Sorry, we’re in Czech here, so that’s Prince Šujskij.
I also think that this opera would benefit a lot from staging. This performance was an acting-free endeavor, the fatal bullet delivered by a drum when the victim was already offstage, and individual characterization is not always Dvořák’s strong point as an opera composer (so more acting presumably would help). Dvořák also produces a much brighter-sounding Russia than Musorgsky: while Musorgsky’s peasants seem afraid of an upcoming apocalypse, Dvořák’s seem concerned about three more recounts at the most, and his score never approaches the rough strangeness and desolation of Musorgsky’s. Direct comparisons are maybe not the best way to approach this work.
Despite the lack of theatrical flair, Odyssey Opera’s cast made a good case for the work. Aleš Briscein, who I recently saw in Berlin as a somewhat stiff Lensky, was much more at home in the more heroic realms of this role. His tenor is tight but even and well controlled, and he sang the many lyrical passages with good taste and stamina, most impressively his extended Act 3 duet with Marina. Dramatically, though, he was generic, and I wondered if he had actually sung the role before. As plotter Šujskij, Mark Doss was more emphatic and crisp, but sometimes underpowered.
Dana Burešová was forceful as Marina, her big soprano sometimes sounding metallic and shrill but appropriate for the dramatic intensity of much of her music. As Xenie, Olga Jelíková’s wielded a silvery, shimmering soprano that projected much better at the top than the bottom. She sweetly sang her large amounts of very maidenly music assigned to a character who spends half of the opera grieving and the other half falling in love with Dimitrij. As Marfa, Ivan the Terrible’s widow, veteran mezzo Irinia Mishura had authority and impressive vocal power, despite a bit of a wobble. The sizable Odyssey Opera chorus was impressive, particularly in the big Russian-Polish choral fight scene in Act 2.
While he deserves credit for this entire endeavor, I wasn’t sure about Gil Rose’s conducting, which was inflexible in the slower sections and sometimes plodded in the quick ones. He seemed to rarely look at the singers and, while the coordination seemed OK, it was all very four-square. The medium-sized orchestra filled every last corner of Jordan Hall’s stage and did a noble job with the long score, though I could have used more depth out of the glossy-sounding strings.
It was great to hear this most unusual and interesting piece. I’ve heard we will be seeing a staged production of it will be happening soon somewhere not too far away, so stay tuned for that announcement. Meanwhile, I’m headed back to Boston for the opening of Carmen at the BLO, which will be Calixto Bieito’s East Coast debut!
*The more generous will compare Dimitrij to Aida. I think this works only if you only remember the first two acts of Aida.
Dvorak, Dimitrij. Odyssey Opera, 9/16/2016, Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory, Boston. Conducted by Gil Rose. Cast listed above. Photos copyright Kathy Wittman.