Cher Public

Catch a falling tsar

You’d think by now I’d know better than to make snap judgments about an opera or a singer—but apparently not. By the first intermission of Bard Summerscape’s production of Dvorak’s grand Dimitrij on Sunday I’d decided the piece was static and uninvolving, surely the reasons it’s so rarely done. And after the second act I was scratching my head wondering why one of the sopranos had been hired. But I had to ruefully acknowledge the error of my ways on both accounts by the time the sold-out audience erupted in cheers at the end. 

The sixth of Dvorak’s ten operas, Leon Botstein’s latest exhumation in Anne Bogart’s clear and effective updated production proved occasionally confounding. While ostensibly concerned with the internecine battle for the succession to tsar after the death of Boris Godunov, the piece comes to life primarily in its expansive exploration of the fraught love-triangle between Dimitrij, an ambitious pretender to the throne, his wife the Polish princess Marina, and Xenia, daughter of the late tsar.

These three proud but insecure figures maneuver toward and away from each other yearning (unsuccessfully, of course) for personal happiness amidst churning political upheaval.

As those familiar with his Stabat Mater or Requiem know, Dvorak was a master at choral writing and the many explosive crowd scenes in Dimitrij display this talent well and James Bagwell’s young Bard Festival Chorale rose splendidly to the challenges after a raucous start. Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra too seemed unsettled initially in a rough and unwieldy account of the overture but settled into a fine, sweeping performance beginning with the infectiously seductive dance music that opens the second act.

As before, Botstein was most comfortable with the more rousing pages of the score but he also accompanied sensitively the three lengthy duets at the heart of the opera.

As the false Dimitrij tireless stentorian tenor Clay Hilley coped extremely well with the unremittingly high tessitura. If sometimes one wanted more nuance in both his singing and acting he effectively delineated the self-doubt behind the brash impetuousness that leads him to ignore his raging jealous wife to pursue Xenia and then to choose death over deception. Despite the role’s great length and fearsome demands, Hilley sounded at the conclusion as if he could have done it all over again.

The Russian soprano Olga Tolkmit portrayed the wounded and achingly vulnerable Xemia. Her lush dark voice once in a while betrayed weakness in the middle and on top but one could easily imagine she’ll become a fine Rusalka. If her frequently gauche acting grew wearisome, she did rise bravely to that shocking moment when Xenia fervently embraced Dimitrij and their illicit love and later to her moving renunciation after she wisely realized their affair was doomed.

Although she didn’t sing in the first act, Melissa Citro’s “Atomic Blonde” Marina made a memorable impression dripping with icy hauteur. When she returned in the second her big wiry soprano betrayed an alarming harshness. Ironically, prior to the performance Our Own JJ recounted an amusing anecdote in which Beverly Sills cautioned an aspiring salesgirl-soprano against auditioning with strophic arias.

After her strained duet with Dimitrij in which she refuses to become Russian, Citro launched into a leaden three-verse brindisi dotted with machine-gun trills that fell absolutely flat. I remember thinking “Boy, this is going to be a long afternoon!”

But what a difference an intermission makes! In the work’s most compelling scene, a wide-ranging, shockingly brutal confrontation between husband and wife in the third act, Citro was transformed. The voice was working much better and she superbly conveyed Marina’s stinging sense of betrayal as she viciously revealed the sordid buried truths of Dimitrij’s origins. Bogart’s setting the scene in what looked like a cheap motel added to its horrible intimacy.

Clearly Dvorak and his librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova expected their audience to believe that Marina is in love with Dimitrij and her motivation in revealing his humble birth is “simply” jealousy. But Citro and Bogart created something rather more interesting in the final two acts: a fascinating ambiguity surfaced in Marina’s actions—was she just acting out as a woman betrayed or was she subtly dissembling to manipulate everyone in order to stay tsarina and keep Dimitrij under her thumb?

Citro, after her silent entrance and grating false-start, had evolved into the opera’s most compelling and moving personage particularly in her shattered remorse at having order the hit on Xenia which was staged with creepy dark menace by Bogart.

The title character’s life is dominated by women, the third being his “mother” Marfa, widow of Ivan the Terrible whose burning desire for revenge motivates her false claims that Dimtrij is her real son. Nora Sourouzian who I understand shone last year at Bard as Anita in Massenet’s La Navarraise returned for the role of the bold but conflicted woman.

Despite some grey streaks in her hair, Sourouzian, flashing her great legs, appeared too young and spry for the character, and while her lush mezzo did dominate the ensembles, it sometimes got very tight on top. Unfortunately she couldn’t salvage the inordinately attenuated finale in which Marfa dithers endlessly about whether or not to swear before God that Dimitrij is her son.

Bard engaged several impressive performers for the smaller male roles. Bass Peixin Chen thundered resoundingly as the Patriarch resplendent in a white and gold robe, while bass-baritone Joseph Barron’s Basmanov skulked about menacingly as a dark and scary machine gun-toting ally to Dimitrij.

While Mussorgsky has accustomed us to expect Prince Shuisky to be a slyly insinuating tenor, Dvorak’s version is a noble baritone crusader for the truth for the Russian people and Levi Hernandez’s sumptuous voice richly pled his case even when he shot Dimitrij in the head during the opera’s final moments.

Bogart’s operatic resumé reveals an eclectic mix of mostly non-standard works and her direction of Dimitrij had the genuine virtues of simplicity and clarity rather than providing a revelatory concept.

The updating to the late 1980s didn’t end up having much of an impact other than providing costume designer Constance Hoffman with the delicious opportunity to clothe the warring Russian vs. Polish factions in some wonderfully tacky outfits. Bogart kept the pomp and circumstance of the battle royal to a minimum and wisely focused on the riveting interpersonal relationships between Dimitrij and his two women.

David Zinn’s stark set evoked a decaying blue gymnasium and crucially supplied central double doors that allowed for many effective entrances and exits. The huge orange curtains at the windows that dominated the left of the stage were fussed with rather often but they facilitated some subtle lighting effects by Brian H. Scott.

Will this fine revival and last year’s acclaimed concert performance by Odyssey Opera herald a renewed life for Dimitrj? I have my doubts—many of the scenes including those three intense central duets just go on far too long and lack an involving structure and stirring sense of climax. At a bit over four hours (with two intermissions) there were definite longeurs but one could hear intimations of Rusalka, Dvorak’s operatic masterpiece that would arrive two decades after Dimitrij.

In his program notes, David Katz makes numerous comparisons to Meyerbeer’s grand operas but I for one would much rather experience Dimitrij again than either Les Huguenots (seen at Bard in 2009) or L’Africaine (wackily served up by Opera Orchestra of New York in 2011). Three more performances of the Dvorak remain and are highly recommended.

For those unable to attend the opera in person, a very fine version of Dimitrj with Stuart Skelton, Krassimira Stoyanova, Elena Prokina, Dalibor Jenis and Dagmar Peckova and conducted by Richard Hickox remains available for listening or download on “Trove Thursday.”

  • Thanks for this great review, Christopher. I’ve never heard a note of this opera and will have to listen to your “Trove Thursday” recording one of these days.

  • aulus agerius

    I spent quite a bit of time with this opera over several years. I have 3 recordings: the London one mentioned here, the Odyssey from last year and one in German of unknown provenance. It took me many hours of listening to get into it and ultimately I came to strongly prefer the more lyric tenor of Odyssey to Skelton. I came to appreciate much of the music, esp the chorus I guess though it’s hard to imagine the Poles and Russian going at each other with their respectively distinctive music when it’s not in situ. At first I was very interested in Bard’s production but lost interest steadily. Whatever, I’m glad it’s deemed a success. I look forward to Will’s and Rowna’s thoughts in due course. Ultimately I decided I did not need to make the effort to attend and instead am shifting my resources toward Boston in October for Siege of Calais at Odyssey and Damnation of Faust at BSO.

    • Rowna Sutin

      I have a family emergency and had to cancel my trip. Bummers!

  • grimoaldo2

    Thank you for the review, It is indeed a splendid opera, and very much after the model of Meyerbeer’s grand operas. I wouldn’t worry about having to sit through Huguenots or L’Africaine again, extremely unlikely unless you are in continental Europe, where they are being revived quite often now.

  • Camille

    Thank you so much for affording us the opportunity of auditioning the false Dimitri(j) via your excellent Thursday treasure trove recording taken from what I suspect was a far superior performance of this opera in London. Aside from the Dimitrij/Xenia duet I found little of interest and will not be making the trek to Annandale.

    It was very interesting to hear Skelton’s voice from back then as I would have never intuited a future Tristan. Mme Stoyanova sounded absolutely exquisite and have never heard her sing better.

    I understand the Pan-Slavism movement to a tiny degree but just cannot account for Dvorak’s (a Bohemian) involvement with it (thinking of Vanda as well).

    I hear that Bard will be presenting HALKA some time this month in conjunction with the Chopin retrospective.