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Bard Music FestivalBerkshire ReviewOpera

Dvořák’s Rare Grand Opera, Dimitrij, Coming Up at Bard Summerscape, beginning July 28 [REVISED]

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Olga Tolkmit as Xenia in Dvořák's grand opera, Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape, 2017. Rehearsal photo Dion Ogust
Olga Tolkmit as Xenie in Dvořák’s grand opera, Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape, 2017. Rehearsal photo Dion Ogust

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

American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Anne Bogart
Set design – David Zinn
Costume design – Constance Hoffman
Lighting design – Brian H. Scott
Movement director – Barney O’Hanlon
Hair and makeup design – Jared Janas and David Bova

 

Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year’s fully-staged production of Dvořák’s rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends. As Tsarina, she flaunts her Polish dress and religion. Seeking solitude in a cemetery, Dimitrij encounters Xenia, daughter of Boris Godunov, who is being molested by drunken Polish nobles. After he rescues her, a bond grows between them. He does not reveal his identity to her; she learns it later. By birth they should be mortal enemies, and, although Boris’ widow has accepted Dimitrij as her son, Xenia knows that he is an imposter. She persuades him to release the conspirator Shuisky. Marina reveals to Dimitrij his true identity. In the final act Xenia acknowledges that she loves Dimitrij, but she knows that she must renounce him. At this point, she is murdered by assassins sent by Marina, who then exposes Dimitrij publicly as an imposter. Marfa, Boris’s widow is brought forward to swear on the cross that Dimitrij is her son. She hesitates—at considerable length—and Dimitrij wavers. In the end he refuses to allow her to take this terrible false oath on herself, and gives Shuisky the opportunity to shoot him.

There are many interesting aspects of this story, but the most interesting to my mind is the question of identity and love. Insecure in his identity, but innocent of the truth, Dimitrij craves love above all things. He cannot receive it from his cold-hearted wife and seeks it in Xenia, where it is also out of reach, because of their positions as enemies and the fact that she, too, knows the truth about him. Dimitrij is deprived of basic human connections and comfort because, through no fault of his own, he lacks authenticity, at a personal and existential level. He was doomed to non-personhood from childhood, as well as its attendant alienation. He fixes his hopes, very rapidly, on Xenia, who, traumatized by her disenfranchisement and aboandonment, as well as the attentions of the drunken Poles, is unable to reciprocate a man’s love, least of all, Dimitrij’s, as she soundly recognizes after she momentaritly gives in to his passion.

Not only are there rich solo parts for each of the central characters and much beautiful music, the chorus plays a central, ample role, and Bard should, as usual, be well-equipped to do justice to all of this, above all the splendid Bard Festival Chorus under their director, James Bagwell. They love to act, and I am especially looking forward to seeing and hearing them in action as antagonistic Russians and Poles. The director, Anne Bogart, perhaps best known in recent years for her opera productions at the Glimmerglass Festival, Greek tragedy at the Getty Villa, and Shakespeare with her own SITI Company, has decided to move the time of the action to the period following the fall of the Soviet Union. This should make the political currents of the strange events following the death of Boris Godunov especially pointed. Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra.

In his survey of Dvořák’s operas in the essay/document volume, Dvořák and his World, for the Bard Music Festival of 1995, Jan Smaczny referred to a statement the composer made “in an interview given two months before his death, [in which] Dvořák expressed the view that his “main inclination was towards dramatic composition. He also stated that he was turning down requests for chamber works from his publisher, Simrock, and that he had demonstrated years before that his main interest was in opera rather than in symphonic music.” 1 which made a deep impression on him and served to some degree as the model for Dimitrij. As he formed his own body of work, he mastered the craft as he proceeded from one to the next, compromised, as one might expect, by the quality of the libretti he had to set. He made mistakes. His operas were never flawless, but he enjoyed some successes, not the least of which was Dimitrij in its early form (1882-85).

Meanwhile, his orchestral works earned him some international reputation. He was especially popular in England, where he was invited to conduct his choral and orchestral works, was much-fêted and awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. His desire was to earn a place among the great composers of opera, the highest of musical genres, on a similar international scale. He thought that Dimitrij, his grand opera on a Russian historical subject, might win him  this honor. The obvious next step towards international recognition as an opera composer was Vienna, but no city in Europe could be more resistant to such a thoroughly Slavic work than the capital of the Habsburg Empire, where all Slavs, especially the Czechs, were disliked as upstart subjects. Unfortunately the Viennese critic, Eduard Hanslick, was present at the Prague premiere of Dimitrij in 1882, of which he wrote a gratifyingly positive, even enthusiastic review, thus encouraging the composer to set his sights on Vienna. Hanslick made certain specific criticisms as well, intelligent and valid ones in some cases, mostly concerning pacing and length, and the symbiosis of music and libretto in these situations. He also found fault with the murder of Xenia in the last act, which risks making Dimitrij’s death an anticlimax. The critic expressed his assurance that both the composer and the librettist would prove willing to correct the flaws in their work. They in fact proceeded accordingly. Cuts were made, some new arias written, and the heroine was indeed sent off to a nunnery instead of the grave before 1885. The opera continued to be very popular with Czech audiences through this period, but projected productions in Vienna, Germany, and Russia never materialized, first and foremost for political reasons, and it fell on Hanslick to give Dvořák the bad news.

Another criticism that had been levelled at Dimitrij was that it was an old-fashioned number opera in the tradition of Meyerbeer, innocent of the integration of Wagnerian music drama. In this second campaign, Dvořák sacrificed a great deal of beautiful music in making his opera conform to Wagnerian practices. He withdrew the earlier version from circulation, mutilated the original score by tearing out pages, pasting new pages over old ones, and erasures. The new version, listed in Burghauser’s catalogue of Dvořák’s oeuvre as a separate work, premiered in 1894, to only tepid reception by the audience. From his position in the United States, he continued to pursue the new version, relenting somewhat only in his final years, when its lack of success began to strike home, and he once again allowed the original parts to be used in hybrid versions. The conductor Karel Kovařovic, Director of the National Theater in Prague, created such a hybrid version with a view to making Dimitrij as dramatic as possible. He first conducted this in 1906, two years after the composer’s death, and it was published in 1912, making it the only score available for the sporadic revivals of the opera through the twentieth century, until a scholarly edition by Milan Pospíšil became available during the 1990s, although in imperfect form.

Dvořák did immense harm to an opera with which he had enjoyed great success in Prague through his unrealistic ambition to build an international reputation on it, beginning in Vienna, where it’s Pan-Slavic agenda would have been met with particular hostility.

Therefore the simple, tangible reason Dimitrij has not enjoyed a comeback something like that of Rusalka, is that no satisfactory score has been available. This was not helped by the apparent failure of the official critical edition under Supraphon Publishing, under which only three operas saw the light. To this day Pospíšil’s edition has not been published with the variants amassed during the first campaign, 1882-85.2

In the early twentieth century, the view arose that Dimitrij was a flawed work, possibly weak dramatically, and that, as usual, the composer’s later revisions are to be preferred, even if imperfect. Perhaps Dvořák’s self-evaluation as an opera composer was overly optimistic. It was also believed that most of the 1882-85 version was irretrievably lost. When Pospíšil delved into the surviving materials, as he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the opera in the 1980s, it emerged that this early version, on the contrary, is the best preserved and is in fact musically and dramatically preferable to the 1894 version.

It has only been relatively recently that this score—a sine qua non of any adequate representation—has been used in performance. The beauties of this opera lie in Dvořák’s lyrical gifts, brought out by the love music between Dimitrij and Xenia in the second half. The early version leaves these intact, and we can look forward to Maestro Botstein and his crew make the most of them.

Peixin Chen as the Patriarch in Dvořák's grand opera, Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape, 2017. Rehearsal photo Dion Ogust
Peixin Chen as the Patriarch in Dvořák’s grand opera, Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape, 2017. Rehearsal photo Dion Ogust
  1. Jan Smaczny, “Dvořák’s Operas,” in Beckerman, Michael, ed., Dvořák and his World, Princeton, 1995, p. 104.} This may seem presumptuous from the ever-popular composer of tuneful symphonies, symphonic dances, tone poems, and chamber music, but in fact it was a modest statement of the truth. Of his eleven operas (a list which counts revised versions of two operas, including the present one as two separate works), one has relatively recently acquired something of a place in major American opera houses—with a broader acceptance of his output in his home country, as one might expect. This is Rusalka, one of his fairy-tale operas, a genre which fits the Dvořákian stereotype as neatly as the comic peasant operas he wrote for local audiences. He also wrote three grand operas, of which Dimitrij is one.

    In fact Dvořák had lived and breathed opera as a violist in the Provisional Theater Orchestra in Prague from 1862 to 1871. where he played, in addition to Czech opera, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, as well as French and German operas, notably Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots,[2. produced at Bard Summerscape in 2009

  2. Milan Pospíšil. “Dimitrij, a Challenge to Editors,” Rethinking Dvořák,” Oxford, 1996, p. 105.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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