RETROSPECTIVE: of the Bard SummerScape 2017 production of Antonín Dvořák’s 1882 opera Dimitrij (July 28 and 30 and August 2, 4 and 6) at the Sosnoff Theater of Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Arts, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
The Tsar is dead! Long live … who?
That is the question.
Doubts about just who it is who’s marched his army through the gates of Moscow and assumed the imperial Russian throne throng thick in Antonín Dvořák’s grandest of grand operas, Dimitrij – a work that was given handsome and full-throated new life by the recent Bard College SummerScape production in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (performed July 28 through August 6; viewed here August 6).
Time of Troubles
The opera opens on a turbulent period following the 1605 death of tsar Boris Godunov – a name readily registered by opera buffs as the title role of another opera entirely, by Modest Mussorgsky.
And, indeed, at first blush, Dvořák’s work might even appear to form a sort of de facto sequel to Mussorgsky’s better-known opus. But, as Dr. Derek Katz’s excellent Bard SummerScape program notes point out, it is doubtful whether either Dvořák or his librettist, Marie Červinková-Riegrová – Czechs both – was at all familiar with Mussorgsky’s earlier Russian work. Moreover, the two operas posit very different motives, meaning, and even moralities for the character Dimitrij depicted in each.
For Mussorgsky, Dimitrij – rival and antagonist to Godunov – is a churl, and a knowing fraud. Dvořák’s Dimitrij, on the other hand, is an ill-starred hero, mounting the throne convinced of his rights, and flush with only the noblest solicitude for restoration of the Russian weal.
Oh, but woe to the well-intended and pure of heart amidst scheming Boyar princes, blood-thirsty factions, jealous paramours, and mendacious dowager queens.
The Facts of Life
It’s a heavy and intriguing plot. In a nutshell, this Dimitrij has been lied to from birth about his true identity. Brought up humbly in Poland, he has been nourished on the fiction that he is actually the youngest son of earlier Russian tsar Ivan (the Terrible) – a child whom all the rest of the world believes to be dead – and, thus, the crypto Russian heir in exile.
Even Dimitrij’s Polish wife, Marina, is in on the lie (it was her father, in fact, who reared the unwitting pretender and inculcated him with imperial delusions). But she is more interested in wealth and power than in apprising her husband of the perilous truth, and so she eggs him on.
Ivan the Terrible’s widow, Marfa (the last of that tsar’s seven wives!), consolidates Dimitrij’s claim to the throne by publicly affirming him to be her long-lost son – though she, too, knows she is compounding a fraud.
Then there’s Xenia, the deceased Godunov’s daughter, who at first plots with the band of nobles opposed to Dimitrij, then falls in love with him.
And, since every hero worth his epic salt must have a tragic flaw, Dimitrij (having awakened to his wife Marina’s shallowness and hypocrisy, and disgusted at her refusal to adopt Russian manners or religious orthodoxy), commits his one conscious transgression by falling into reciprocal love with Xenia.
It’s a big story, and Dvořák never shrinks from telling it in a big way, with tidal waves of passionate choral writing, lavishly evocative modal melody, plangencies of tirelessly varied rhythms, and vaunting solo and duet arcs of extravasating emotion.
Dimitrij’s and Marina’s climactic Act III confrontation, in which the latter vindictively spits out the truth about the monstrous deception under which Dimitrij has labored, is utterly chilling and utterly fascinating. It’s a scene evoking something of the same inexorable horror one feels in Sophocles, as Oedipus awakens to his own calamitous and fateful truth. This is psychologically detailed, character-driven operatic conflict of the highest order.
Grand opera, indeed.
Singing with the Tsars
The performers – principals and members of the large chorus alike – were all in top form singing the original Czech text, and all clearly on a rapturous high to ride the Dvořák whirlwind. Tenor Clay Hilley demonstrated an almost unearthly vocal stamina and remarkably consistent dramatic honesty throughout his three-plus hours in the role of Dimitrij, while soprano Melissa Citro, as the rapacious Marina, was equally impressive, with a voice that glinted and penetrated – a beautiful instrument expertly weaponized.
Soprano Olga Tolkmit gave exquisitely plaintive voice to Xenia, the opera’s doleful maiden in distress, faultlessly tracking the character’s darkly eventful course to its gruesome end (spoiler alert: the bloody Marina has Xenia murdered). And mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian brought into vivid relief the dowager tsarina Marfa’s conflict and heartache, with a voice of velvety rich, genuinely affecting dolor.
In other roles, bass Peixin Chen, as the patriarch Jov, and baritone Levi Hernandez and bass-baritone Joseph Barron as, respectively, the fractious noblemen Shuisky and Basmanov, were all splendid.
Veteran theatrical experimentalist Anne Bogart directed the production without any evident recourse to her quondam Meyerhold-inflected staging stylizations, instead eliciting performances of admirable naturalism from her cast. She also chose an intriguing and thematically fertile update of time period, finding a 20th-century resonance for the opera’s original 17th-century turmoil by a production design that evoked the era of the unraveling Soviet Union and dismantling of the Iron Curtain. At the very least, four midsummer hours spent in (more or less) modern dress was probably a happier sojourn than might have been had wrapped in period muscovite furs and Polish żupans.
Bard College president (and SummerScape artistic director) Leon Botstein conducted his own American Symphony Orchestra in a gorgeously realized, expansive bear hug of Dvořák’s luscious score.
All told, Dimitrij proved a feast fit for a tsar. Hail Bard, Botstein and Bogart for serving it up.
Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival are held each summer on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, as themed celebrations and explorations centering on the musical legacy of a select composer; next year’s programming (August 10-12 and 17-19) has been announced as “Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.” Additional information will be available at http://fishercenter.bard.edu/bmf/.