Review of Dvořák’s Dimitrij at Bard

The strength of Bard’s presentation of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij lies with the performers, both onstage: soloists, chorus, dancers, and in the pit. The word ‘heroic’ comes quickly to mind.

Dimitrij is a big work, three hours and a decent amount more, not counting the two intermissions, and, like most grand operas, it has several extended moments during which one bathes luxuriously in waves of opulent sound, then one more time, but not much happens plotwise. Albeit it moving along slowly but surely, the drama is clearly etched.

Basically, Dimitrij assumes the throne of Russia after the death of Boris Godunov. His claim is promoted by Marina, a Polish princess, a Catholic, of course, and her retainers. They’re ultimately looking to take control of the country from the reigning Russian Orthodox culture. The clash between the Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox, prefigured in the Polish Act of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, is more prominent in Dvořák’s Dimitrij.

Marina’s nasty little secret is that Dimitrij is not in fact the son of the late Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but rather a lowly serf raised to believe that he is Dimitrij and goaded into action. Not all the Russians are fooled either, certainly not Shuisky, who knows that Ivan’s son was murdered when an infant. Certainly not Ivan’s widow Marfa either: she knows he is not her son Dimitrij Ivanovich, but…she falsely claims that he is because she thinks he can be useful to settle old wrongs against her family.

Add to the confusion, Xenia, daughter of the late Tsar Boris and legitimate heir to the throne, is still alive. She evaded the thugs who murdered her brother Fyodor and mother and happens to be hiding with Prince Shuisky.

So Dimitrij is caught in the middle of a lot of powerful scheming people and on top of it doesn’t know the truth about his identity. Good guy, he rescues Xenia from some lusty Poles, falls in love with her, which angers Marina, who reveals the truth about Dimitrij’s origins and has Xenia killed. At Xenia’s death, Shuisky demands justice, has Marina arrested, denounces Dimitrij, hauls in Marfa again to attest to his identity…not looking good for our boy by the end. I won’t give away the ending, but Shuisky shoots Dimitrij right then and there.

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij at Bard

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij at Bard

Clay Hilley’s Dimitrij is heroically sung throughout, with a bright ring in his tenor range. This is a long, strenuous role, for sure. His body speaks of the language of a man whose character is not comfortable with the demands of absolute power, his softer side coming out during his first encounter with Xenia in the tomb of Ivan and Boris. Lovely duet and the beginning of a romance. Attend to the way Hilley moves.

The sensitive Dimitrij’s no match for the brazen lust for power exhibited by Marina, forcefully sung by Melissa Citro. Tall and regal, Citro has a clean dramatic soprano voice that easily cuts through chorus and orchestra. Dvořák gives her ample opportunity to shine. Mother Marfa, too, has a regal voice. She is Nora Sourouzian, rich in tone and thrilling vocally. Then, in contrast, petite Olga Tolkmit charms by sweetness and introspection, if plagued by despair. More demure than the others, she captivates Dimitrij (and the audience) with a bright silvery tone.

Iov, the Orthodox Patriarch is sung by Peixin Chen with a cavernous bass that gives gravity to his every utterance. Shuisky, the prince whose plotting hastened the fall of Boris Godunov (in Mussorgsky’s opera), is faithfully Russian to the end, which (after the opera’s over) will lead to his coronation as Tsar. Levi Hernandez gives urgency to Shuisky’s conniving loyalty. Joseph Barron is a loyal Basmanov. The chorus must wear many hats, literally: pay attention to their attire! They are in and out, here and there, sometimes Russians, sometimes Poles, sometimes priests, court officials and serfs…and so on. I liked their energy on stage throughout the long afternoon.

Praise again to Leon Botstein for choosing a fascinating opera which, sadly, we’re not likely to see again. The American Symphony Orchestra played wonderfully under his baton.

Dramatically, this Dimitrij had mostly high points, though my emotional reactions were enhanced from preparation by emersion in the orchestral and vocal picture and text from the complete recording. The singers onstage fit their music and their characters and I responded accordingly. Director Anne Bogart ’74 kept the players moving in what easily could have settled into a lot of standing around. The coordination of it all must have presented a staggering challenge.

I completely understand their general reasoning and decisions, but I fault the production design team for, bottom line, an ugly production visually, particularly the costumes. I mean, I get it: it’s the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Time of Troubles for them as it was for the Terribles and the Godunovs, Hardly the moment when making a fashion statement is a priority over survival. And no, I’m not saying that I’d prefer it set in 1605/06: the cost of the costumes and the time for the chorus to change them are both prohibitive. But…Led Zeppelin? Really?

Don’t miss Dimitrij. It’s likely your only shot at it in this lifetime.

The final performances of Bard’s rendition of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij are tonight, August 4 @ 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 6 @ 2 p.m. For tickets, call 845-758-7900 or check out their website.

As an added treat, Bard presents in concert Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka, often called the Poland’s National Opera, on Saturday, August 19, in the Sosnoff Theater, pre-concert talk at 7:00 p,m. performance follows at 8.

Photo: Todd Norwood

Performance date: Sunday, July 30, 2017

Note: Check out also the two previous OperaMetro pieces on Bard’s Dimitrij, a preview right below this and additional historical background on the page Addenda; Bard provides excellent program notes. If you see it, you won’t go into the experience empty minded.

It was one of the lovelier days of the summer of 2017! A great experience on every count, this Bard SummerScape. If you haven't indulged yourself, go for it! Next season is an unjustly neglected Russian opera. Happily, Maestro Botstein says some previous productions may soon be released on audio or video! My short list of acquisitions is being prepared as I type this.

Happy trails! J.