Dvořák’s Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape

Antonin Dvořák’s grand historic opera Dimitrij fills the stage of the Sosnoff Theatre as the centerpiece of the 2017 Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival. Tenor Clay Hilley sings the demanding title role; Melissa Citro sings his 'can't live with her, can't live without her' wife Marina; the production is directed by Anne Bogart; Leon Botstein, Music Director, conducts the American Symphony Orchestra.

Though Rusalka has at long last made its way into the hearts, minds, and ears of today’s opera audience, Dvořák’s other operas (listed below with the dates of first composition and subsequent revisions during his lifetime) are heard stateside through recordings at least, though occasionally in concert. Like Dimitrij, for one, in 1984. But this summer Bard offers up Dimitrij, this time up on stage, fully dressed to kill.

The opera's origins come at a time in Dvořák’s musical journey when his sights are not only focused on writing for the stage, but also set on penetrating the music scene in Vienna. There Johannes Brahms reigned, late comer Anton Bruckner was ascending, albeit awkwardly, but a young Gustav Mahler stood, waiting in the wings in Budapest. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances op. 46 make a splash; conductor Hans Richter asks him to compose what will be his Symphony in D major, now cataloged as his 6th. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (1880) will be well received in Royal Albert Hall in London a couple of years later. He will befriend Brahms soon.

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij

But opera remains a fondness for him, especially with Bedřich Smetana as a national role model, and let's not forget his various gigs in the orchestras of opera houses as a source of income. Here Dvořák plays his viola to the scores of Meyerbeer, Wagner (once with the Meister himself conducting), Smetana, probably Weber…At this point he's five operas in, but no notoriety outside of Prague.

In late 1880 Marie Červinková-Riegrová supplies Dvořák with the libretto for Dimitrij, more or less the sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He sets the text between May and October, 1881, finishing in time to premiere it at the New Czech Theatre in Prague in October of 1882. But Dvořák continues to tinker with the score, adding this, rewriting that.

Is our boy ready for prime time? Vienna, perhaps? Well, Eduard Hanslick, the powerful Viennese critic, warns Dvořák that to have even a prayer of getting Dimitrij produced in Vienna he’d best change Xenia’s final scene. Červinková rewrites it, as requested: Xenia now goes into a convent rather than die at the hands of Marina and the Poles. A few more changes: the final tinkered version is published in 1886, now to be called ‘the first version.’

Alas, Dimitrij never makes it to Vienna, alternate final curtain for Xenia notwithstanding; Dvořák, busy with other projects, loses faith in it. He also travels to America, where everyone loves him and his music. Oh, and there he writes the Symphony Nr. 9 in E minor 'From the New World' and the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104. Not too shabby.

But just as the vision of the murdered Dimitri plagues Tsar Boris in Mussorgsky, Dimitrij haunts him. Dvořák rewrites the music entirely, eventually producing it at the National Theatre in Prague in November of 1894, called here ‘the second version.’ Dvořák waffles again near the end of his life, cobbling not really a new third version, but mixing parts of the first version with parts of the second; it’s produced in March of 1904, the last year of Dvořák’s life. Enter Karel Kovařovic, director of the National Theatre, who, for a 1906 production of the opera, uses the first version, but cuts it to pieces, mixes in two cups of the second version, but also a dash of monkeying with the instrumentation, some alterations of the text to top it off, salt to taste, and so on. This last supposedly was, like, ‘it’ until the appearance of Milan Pospíšil’s critical edition, back to the first version; this score is used, minus a few small cuts here and there, in the 1989 recording of Dimitrij under the baton of Gerd Albrecht.

Supraphon's 1989 recording of Dimitrij conducted by Gerd Albrecht

Supraphon's 1989 recording of Dimitrij conducted by Gerd Albrecht

The recording is great preparation! And as long as you’re up, a quick listen to Boris wouldn't hurt either, though Dvořák’s music is of course not Mussorgsky’s (your call on 'for better or for worse' here). Dvořák would not have known the Mussorgsky score. In answer to the question ‘what does Dimitrij sound like?’ It sounds like Dvořák. Could I be more specific? It sounds to me more like his opera Wanda. Helpful? Of course not. Nor does answering that every white meat, rabbit, for one, tastes like chicken. But wait, Wanda? So you mean it's not like Rusalka? Well, no, for the first version of Dimitrij he seems to be modeling himself more on structure and style of Meyerbeer's grand operas, maybe early Wagner like Lohengrin, and of course Smetana's Libuše. Yes, like the plot of Rusalka, Dimitrij does have the tenor's pretty soprano love interest bumped aside by an assertive, brash mezzo...but Dimitrij is grand and heroic, public, big choruses, not a fairy tale in the steamy summer moonlight with water nymphs, wood nymphs, gnomes and all sorts of magical goings on from a sorceress. How could Dimitrij sound the same? Okay, then why is Dimitrij not performed more often? The tenor role is long and high; if you set the production in the correct time period, sets, costumes and all, it probably is very costly, and the plot is a little wooden. Speaking of which...

Thus follows the plot of Dimitrij (Czech spelling of the title character throughout):

Act I: The crowd in Moscow awaits the announcement of the new Tsar after Boris’s sudden death. They’re split between supporters for Fyodor, Boris’s son, or supporters for anyone else who is not a nasty Godunov and also can improve the nation's health insurance. Someone claiming to be Dimitrij, son of Ivan the Terrible, is outside the city gates with the Polish army, they having just defeated the Russians (remember the end of Boris). Basmanov tells those assembled that all of Russia is already on board with this Dimitrij, but Prince Vassily Shuisky calls the newcomer the Polish Pretender (aka ‘the False Dimitrij’). You remember Shuisky: he's the shape-shifter, the 'friend' who drives Tsar Boris to hallucinations in the so-called Clock Scene in the Kremlin Act. But the people are swayed to support the triumphant young leader. Boris Godunov’s daughter Xenia (remember her from the Kremlin Act in Boris) escapes from the mob. They've just murdered her mother and Fyodor her brother (son Fyodor, though not yet crowned, sits on the Boris's vacated throne as his successor at the end of Boris's Death Scene). Xenia is protected by Shuisky’s cover. Marfa, mother to the Real Dimitrij, the real son of Ivan the Terrible, confronts the False Dimitrij, but opts not to reveal the latter's hoax in favor of Dimitrij’s promise to revenge her wrongdoers from back in the day. Take notes. This might be on the first quiz.

Act II: Dimitrij and Marina Mnishkova (recall her conniving for his love in the Polish act of Boris Godunov) are married in the Kremlin, but, first marital squabble, she is really put off by his request that she become Russian in all things. Subsequently, at a gathering of Russians and Poles, Marina raises a glass and calls for a mazurka. The rival factions exchange words, quelled only by Dimitrij’s intervention. Later, in the vault of the Uspenski Cathedral, at the tomb of Ivan the Terrible, Dimitrij observes pretty young Xenia, who visits her father’s tomb with flowers while also hiding from the rabble rousing Poles. Něborský a negative Pole, has followed her, he being prone to unclean thoughts, but Dimitrij intercedes. Alone with her, Dimitrij is clearly affected by her gentleness and beauty (certainly compared to the head-strong power-hungry Marina!), but he does not reveal his rank or identity. Xenia departs safely, just as Shuisky and followers arrive at the crypt. Shuisky briefly tells anyone listening the story of the Real Dimitrij, dead for years, and tries to form some degree of solidarity among the rebellious Russian followers. Our Dimitrij overcomes their doubts and also orders Shuisky's arrest.

Act III: Dimitrij is in love with Xenia. The Patriarch asks him to counter the Polish arrogance, a request echoed by Marfa, but Marina asserts her power. We learn that Shuisky is to be executed for treason, right then and there. Xenia rushes in to plead for his life, first to Marina, but then to the Tsar. How shocked is she to recognize Dimitrij as that titled person in the big chair! He pardons Shuisky. Marina senses the connection between D and X; she, jealous, reveals to Dimitrij the story of his true origins: he is Grishka Otrepyev! She knows from her father that the Real Dimitri was murdered by Godunov's thugs. Identity crisis ensues, but Dimitrij regains his cool and one-ups Marina.

Act IV: Xenia is in love with Dimitrij, but at the same time she hates him for destroying her whole family. Together again, each waffles a bit emotionally, but they end up respectfully at odds. Dimitrij departs. Marina has Xenia murdered; Shuisky rallies the people. Caught at the scene, Marina reveals the Pretender’s true identity to all, but Dimitrij stands firm, and who can believe Marina, after all?! Marfa, his “mother” is asked to step forward to swear on the Cross that Dimitrij is indeed her son. She, not wanting to rat on him, but a true believer, hesitates. He knows the game is over: Dimitrij says “Do not swear, I do not want the throne by fraud.” Shuisky whacks Dimitrij. And that’s the end of that. Only business...like in The Godfather flicks.

Director Anne Bogart says in the program notes: “For me it was important to set Dimitrij at a time analogous to the “Time of Troubles” in Russia, when the world order had altered and no one knew whether to support or resist the new hegemony. Of course this instability is very familiar and resonant to our own current moment. I could have set our production in the present but instead I opted for the slight distancing of a time reminiscent of 1989 Berlin. Our Dimitrij takes place at the moment in history when Communism had collapsed but it was not yet clear what shape the future might take.”

Leon Botstein will give us a version of Dimitrij probably with a high percentage of the music on the Albrecht recording (which, BTW, runs 190 minutes). Last year in the pre-opera talk he stated he’d be doing the ‘first version’ with some additional numbers.

Photo by Todd Norwood.

Dvořák’s Dimitrij is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the Fridays July 28 and August 4 at 7:30 p.m., Sundays July 30 and August 6 and Wednesday August 2 at 2 p.m. The pre-opera talk is July 30 at noon. The opera is sung in Czech with projected English titles. Catch the SummerScape Coach from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but only for selected performances. For details visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu/transportation.  Bottom line: for dates and times, the bus, also ticket sales, can't get in without one, please visit Bard’s website www.fishercenter.bard.edu or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.

Dimitrij: Clay Hilley, tenor; Marina: Melissa Citro, soprano; Xenie: Olga Tolkmit, soprano; Marfa: Nora Sourouzian, mezzo-soprano; Jove: Peixin Chen, bass; Shuisky: Levi Hernandez, baritone; Basmanov: Joseph Barron, bass-baritone; Neborsky: Joseph Damon Chappel, bass-baritone; Bucinsky: Thomas McCargar, baritone.

The American Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leon Botstein, music director. The production is directed by Anne Bogart, with sets by David Zinn, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lighting by Brian H. Scott, movement directed by Barney O’Hanlon, and hair/makeup by Jared Janas and David Bova.
As an added treat, Bard presents in concert Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka, often called Poland’s National Opera, on Saturday, August 19, in the Sosnoff Theater, pre-concert talk at 7:00 p,m. performance follows at 8. Also there are lots of side events surrounding Chopin's music and the culture.

Dvořák’s operas are Alfred (1870); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (1871) (quite Wagnerian apparently); Tvrdé palice (The Stubborn Lovers) (1874); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (first revision 1874); Vanda (1876); Šelma sedlák (The Cunning Peasant) (1878); Dimitrij (orginal version 1882); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (second revision 1887); Jakobín (The Jacobin) (1889); Dimitrij (second version 1894); Čert a Káča (The Devil and Kate) (1899); Rusalka (1901) (shame on you if you don't know this one); Armida (1904).

Enjoy Dimitrij. An evening (or afternoon) of Tsars. See you on the 30th. Support your local opera...I sound like a broken record. J.