Dvořák’s Grand Opera, Dimitrij, at Bard

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Dvořák, DImitrij, Ensemble, Bard Summerscape. Photo Cory Weaver.

Dvořák, DImitrij, Ensemble, Bard Summerscape. Photo Cory Weaver.

Antonin Dvořák, Composer
Marie Červinková-Riegrová, Librettist

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

The word has been that Antonin Dvořák’s grand Opera, Dimitrij is a lost and rediscovered masterpiece. Whatever one thinks of it musically, dramatically, or politically, it is clear that the reasons for its neglect arise from its faulty transmission. Dvořák had great hopes for it. He thought it might be his ticket to international fame as an opera composer. Unfortunately—it turns out—the influential music critic, Eduard Hanslick attended the premiere in Prague…and liked it very much—both score and libretto—and wrote a highly positive, intelligent review. He made certain criticisms, however, which Dvořák took very seriously, especially because of Hanslick’s praise and his position as the most influential critic in Vienna, the Hauptstadt of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Dvořák Vienna was the first step to international recognition, and he desperately wanted a production there. Given Viennese attitudes towards Slavic matters the composer’s ambition seems naive.1 One of Hanslick’s objections was the murder of the heroine, Xenia, in the last act, and that was quickly excised, but—ironically, since we remember Hanslick as the archenemy of Wagner—Dvořák set himself to transforming Dimitrij into a Wagnerian music-drama, with the elimination of separate numbers, essentially creating a new opera.2 The original version, premiered in 1882, had been a considerable success in Prague, and it played for over 50 performances through the 1880s, but the new version, staged about a decade later, met with a lukewarm reception. Dvořák, who had forbidden circulation of his original version, eventually understood his error, and lifted the ban, encouraging mixed versions. After the composer’s death in 1904, Karel Kovařovic prepared his own mixed version, which was published and became the only basis for performances until late in the twentieth century, when Milan Pospíšl’s edition of the original 1882 version became available,3 and this, to general agreement, is the better version. It has been performed in the Czech Republic, recorded, and, in 2016, presented in concert in Boston—which I attended—and now at Bard.

Marina (Melissa Citro) encourages Poles in their national customs in Russia. Photo Cory Weaver.

Marina (Melissa Citro) encourages Poles in their national customs in Russia. Photo Cory Weaver.

In the context of the Bard Music Festival, which was devoted to Chopin and his world, Dimitrij aroused some offense, since Chopin is to Poles a national symbol, and any celebration of Chopin should be a Polish celebration as well. Poles do not come off well in Dimitrij, as Dimitrij, the false pretender to the tsardom of Russia, is not the son of Ivan the Terrible, but an imposter, the son of serfs, raised by Poles to usurp the throne. His wife, Marina, is a party to the hoax, and she exposes him in the end. The librettist took with history was to make Dimitrij a sincere dupe of the Polish interests who took him away from his family to make him a pretender to the tsardom of Russia. (This is not so much a distortion of historical fact as a view that was in fact current among Western historians and writers. Many regarded him as the Deliverer of Russia. See Kalil, pp. 95ff.) In Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij sincerely believes that he is the lost son of Ivan the Terrible and the rightful heir to the throne. In Act I he is put forward as Tsar and is accepted by the people over the children of Boris Godunov, of whom Xenia is the sole survivor. Ivan’s widow, Marfa, accepts him as her son, knowing that he is not, for her own purposes. In Act II during the preparations for the coronation of Dimitrij and his marriage to the Polish noblewoman, Marina, the couple argue over her status as Tsarina. Dimitrij wants her to adopt Russian customs and the Orthodox religion, and she refuses. As the argument heats up, Russian and Polish noblemen begin to fight. Dimitrij quells this, threatening punishment to whoever disturbs the peace. Dimitrij goes off alone to a cemetery to commune with the tombs of Ivan and Boris. There he meets Xenia, who is being harassed by drunken Polish noblemen. Dimitrij defends her and chases them away without disclosing his identity. She departs, and Dimitrij overhears a Shuisky and other Russian nobles plotting to dethrone him. He has Shuisky arrested. In Act III, we learn that Dimitrij has fallen in love with Xenia and that he no longer loves Marina. A group of boyars enter and there is discussion of Marina’s failure to adopt the Orthodox faith. Xenia enters and pleads for her uncle Shuisky. Dimitrij pardons him, and he is set free, much to the discomfiture of the Poles and approval of the Russians. He finds himself alone with Marina, who, concerned about her position in Russia, tells Dimitrij that he is of humble origins and was raised by her father to impersonate Ivan the Terrible’s lost (in fact, murdered) son. He defies her in the strongest way and wins her respect to the point that she reconsiders her relationship with him. In fourth and final act, we find Xenia in a quandary about her love for an imposter who has usurped her place on the throne of Russia. She knows she must not pursue the relationship, but when Dimitrij enters, he tempts her to accept his suit. She regains her resolve, however. At that point assassins employed by Marina murder her. A crowd gathers, and Marina appears, denouncing Dimitrij as an imposter, but also expressing her remorse for the murder of her rival. Marfa is called upon once again to legitimize him, this time swearing on the Cross, but Dimitrij will not allow her to bring damnation on herself in this way, and confesses, whereupon Shuisky shoots him. Dimitrij may have lacked the legitimacy of the succession, but he proved himself worthy and effective as tsar—a potential Deliverer of the nation.

Červinková-Riegrová’s libretto has been widely praised, especially in comparison with that of Dvořák’s previous opera, Vanda. To us today the most compelling aspect of it is the impossible love between Dimitrij and Xenia, both of whom, as “damaged goods,” are barred from such a union. Xenia has been traumatized by  the events following the death of her father and remains devoted to her family’s honor, compromised by Dimitrij’s imposture. Dimitrij, on the other hand, unaware that he is in fact an impostor and the son of a serf, suffers from a lack of identity at an existential level that seems entirely modern. He is basically a non-person, deprived of love and a genuine human relationship. Outwardly brave and forceful as a leader, he is needy and weak in intimate relations, at least with Xenia. Since Dimitrij, however, was planned as a grand opera in the spirit of Les Huguenots and is dominated by public scenes and a prominent chorus, it has its share of pomp and political conflict, and Dvořák demanded more of this from the librettist.4 Having heard two performances of the opera, one of which, a concert reading by Odyssey Opera, pushed these scenes rather aggressively—remaining true to the composer’s intentions—and the second, the Bard production, was more balanced in favor of the Dvořákian lyricism we appreciate today—I cannot rid myself of the impression that the composer’s strength lay in the lyrical, romantic scenes and that his “action music” is fairly generic and uninteresting. Both the librettist and the composer wanted to end each act on an exciting note and followed the intimate scenes of Acts II, III, and IV with rousing scenes of conflict and/or grandeur which musically have not stood the test of time. Hence these concluding scenes of each act seem like anticlimactic tangents, whereas they were intended to advance the plot in a linear path to Dimitrij’s heroic-tragic death.

Dimitrij (Clay Hilley) with an expressive Bard Summerscape Chorus. Photo Cory Weaver.

Dimitrij (Clay Hilley) with an expressive Bard Summerscape Chorus. Photo Cory Weaver.

Dvořák was committed to grand opera at this point in his career, which he first attempted in Vanda, as not only the most important genre in music, but the most effective way a composer can teach the people, an especially desirable achievement for a composer setting a Czech text, since Czech opera was a relative newcomer to major urban theaters—a result of the resurgence of the language as an alternative to German, the official language of the Habsburg Empire. In spite of Dvořák’s high intentions and his great abilities in other genres, his music undermines the drama, and Dmitrij cannot stand comparison with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the story of which it continues (Dvořák cannot have known it), nor with its model, Les Huguenots, which he knew well as a violist in the orchestra of the Provisional Theater. I can’t see Dmitrij as the forgotten masterpiece some consider it to be.

As I mentioned, at least one Polish attendee of the opera and the Chopin Festival was vexed by the anti-Polish attitude of the opera—presented as it was  in the context of Chopin. This is not the only time Summerscape programming has brought hostile bedfellows together. The pairing of Les Huguenots by the Jew, Meyerbeer, whom Wagner detested, with his festival in 2009 would have made the Master of Bayreuth turn in his grave, if it bothered few or none of the attendees, but the irony was not lost on some of them. I should note that originally the fully-staged Summerscape opera was to have been Moniuszko’s Halka, the Polish national opera, but for probably a variety of reasons it was demoted to a semi-staged production.

In any case, the anti-Polish feeling in Dimitrij is palpable, and needs an explanation, since it is part of the opera’s cultural context.

During Dvořák’s entire life, the Czech lands, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, had, as everybody knows, long been assimilated into the Habsburg Empire. German was the official language. The Protestant religions of the people, most famously represented by the Hussites, had long been suppressed in favor of the official faith of the Empire, Roman Catholicism. The Czechs were one among several Slavic groups in the Empire, which included part of partitioned Poland. Following the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) about the nations and races of mankind and their indigenous cultures, as well as the later development of linguistic studies, which revealed the kinship among the Czech, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, and Russian languages, among others, national feeling was aroused in these peoples. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century, an interest arose in restoring the Czech language in a population which had spoken German for several generations, as well as the culture that came with it, and political self-determination. If each of the Slavic peoples had their own individual, even incompatible, cultures, just as their traditional tongues were separate languages, not dialects, opinions about what should be done varied widely, from group to group, and within each group. The Poles, for example, had only lost their independence in the late eighteenth century. The lands where Polish was still spoken and Roman Catholicism lovingly embraced, had been broken up with relative abruptness in a process extending between 1772 and 1795, between the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, and Russia. The Czech lands had belonged to Austria since 1526. German and Latin replaced Czech as the official language a century later. They were full subjects of the Emperor, if regarded as inferior by the Austrian Germans. As nationalistic feeling developed, these territories became the epicenter of Slavic identity in the Empire. The Czechs were the strongest supporters of Pan-Slavism outside Russia. Inspired by the Risorgimento, when Italians revolted successfully against Austrian rule and unified their own country as well as creating a unified Italian language, Czechs sought to create a sense of Slavic identity through the Czech language, which even people born as late as Dvořák used clumsily and in tandem with German. (Part of Dvořák’s revisions to Dimitrij involved correcting errors in accentuation.)

The linguistic and cultural revival depended heavily on literature and on the recording of folk tales and other folklore, which meant that it was restricted to people who could read and write. The leaders’ goals, however, extended beyond that to the illiterate masses, and the founding of a national theater became an essential means to creating a national culture. The Provisional Theater, as it was generally called, funded by the government, opened in 1862. It was small in scale—cramped in fact, with a stage only 9.5 meters across. It opened with a play, followed the next evening by a Cherubini opera translated into Czech, because there were no suitable Czech operas in existence. Smetana was chief conductor for a number of years, and several of his operas were premiered there, including Dvořák’s first grand opera, Vanda, and the difficulties of the production showed vividly the inadequacies of the house, as well as the politics that were rife in its administration.5 The much larger National Theater followed 1882. It was truly a national monument, funded by public subscription. Czechs from all walks of life made donations for its construction. It opened in 1881, this time with a proper Czech opera, Smetana’s Libuše. The festive and ceremonial qualities of opera made it more suitable for the opening celebrations of the National Theater, which was to be the centerpiece of Czech culture. The premiere of Dimitrij was slated for only a couple of months after the opening, but a fire destroyed the house and the performances were cancelled. The premiere eventually took place at the New Czech Theater, a wooden construction that was the summer venue of the Provisional Theater. Dimitrij was typical of what the new National Theater was intended to achieve, and it is clear that the Czechs took their opera very seriously. In tandem with legitimate theater, it was the primary means to teach Czech cultural values and history to the population at large.

This also accounts for the ceremonial solemnity of Dimitrij‘s first act and later scenes as well and explains why Dvořák pushed himself beyond his limits in setting them. And at this point we can consider the role of Slavic politics in shaping this curate’s egg of a grand opera. To summarize very simplistically the trends I began to outline above, there were, within the Czech regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as it was called after the Compromise of 1867, several different views of the future of the Slavs within the Empire. In addition to the success of the Risorgimento, the granting of equal power to Hungary gave the Czechs hope that they might gain similar self-rule in a federalized Austro-Hungary. This sort of co-existence was known as Austro-Slavism, generally the main platform of the Old Czechs, led by the historian František Palacký, considered by Czechs to be the “Father of the Nation.” His son-in-law, František Ladislav Rieger, embarked on a political career, and became one of the most prominent and influential leaders of his generation. Both, it seems, flirted with another solution to Slavic nationalism, Pan-Slavism, which, in its most extreme form, advocated an independent Slavic state under Russian hegemony, with all Slavs, from Croatia to Poland, adopting the Russian language and customs and the Orthodox Church. Another event of 1867 was the Slavic Exposition and Conference at Moscow, where Palacký and Rieger were celebrated as heroes. The Poles, having had first-hand experience of Russian rule, wanted no part of this and refused to attend. Rieger appointed himself the representative of the Poles. The 1863 Polish rebellion against Russia was still fresh in Slavs’ memory, and, while the Czechs were adulated as the leaders of Pan-Slavism, the Poles were despised as Judases to the cause. While Palacký and Rieger played the Russian Conference for what it was worth, it seems their basic goal was to create a Czech state within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Dvořák, the simple son of a butcher, seems not to have been very active in politics. In any case he seems to have left few statements about the subject. He was careful to stay on the good side of Smetana, seventeen years his elder, who, as the conductor of the Provisional Theater orchestra, was his boss for the years he played in the orchestra. Smetana was more politically engaged, as an adherent of the “Young Slav” movement. Rieger, who, along with his political activities, played a role as a cultural leader somewhat like Vladimir Stasov in Russia, opposed Smetana strongly and worked to have him removed as conductor of the Provisional Theater. Dvořák, it happens, came within Rieger’s circle, somewhat reluctantly on a political level, when Rieger’s daughter, Marie Červinková-Riegrová, wrote the libretto for Dimitrij. In this way he acquired a reputation as an Old Slav—a position regarded as conservative by later critics like V. V. Zelený. She was a woman of exceptional learning and talent, but her father stood behind her in promoting Dimitrij. At first, they offered the libretto to Karel Šebor. an opera composer who had enjoyed some success early in his career, but who subsequently encountered failure after failure and withdrew to a job as bandmaster in a provincial town. Šebor had expressed some interest in a historical subject like Dimitrij, but, once he had the libretto, he did little about it. The Riegers then offered the libretto to Dvořák, considering him a Naturmensch who might simply take to it.6 At first Dvořák showed little interest, but, after consulting with friends, he accepted it, and his enthusiasm grew. The fire at the National Theater, gave him his first chance to reconsider things, and he decided to omit Červinková-Riegrová’s fifth act, which consisted of Xenia’s funeral and a great concluding conflict between Russians and Poles. He continued to revise after that, notably following Hanslick’s advice to omit the murder of Xenia, which was obviously important to Červinková-Riegrová, but she acquiesced. The fifth act must have brought anti-Polish animus to a height in the imagined finale. The opera, Dimitrij, seems to reflect the mood of Rieger’s great moment in Moscow in 1867, when the goals of Pan-Slavism were betrayed by Polish abstention. On the other hand, the aggressive demands of the Russians were rejected by other Slavs as well. Rieger himself used all his influence to get Dimitrij produced. His daughter lent her considerable intelligence and dramatic skill, Dvořák wrote and rewrote his music, taking the lead in the endless revisions, but Rieger pushed it through. Nothing could put the political agenda of Dimitrij into more striking relief.

As for the Poles, John Tyrrell has pointed out the edgy qualities of Marina’s melodic lines, and the sarcastic treatment of the mazurka and other Polish motifs in the opera, noting that the unspecified nationality of the unpleasant aristocrats in Rusalka must be Polish7—which, I believe, was made quite clear in a recent Met production. Dvořák himself either harbored a special dislike of Poles—hardly surprising in a Czech of his background and level of education—or saw an effective gambit in gaining the sympathies of his audience.

I believe Dimitrij is the weakest opera Bard Summerscape has produced. Even Schumann’s Genoveva (for which I must confess to a special affection) was more convincing. However, the problems surrounding it are fascinating, and it contains much beautiful music. All of the highly gifted people involved gave it their best, and, as a production, it was excellent in almost every way. Most impressive was Anne Bogart’s imaginative transference of the story to post-communist Russia. Although I don’t agree with her that the immediate post-communist years are a convincing parallel to the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century, the production was dramatically detailed, intelligent, and got to the essence of Červinková-Riegrová and Dvořák’s creation. The modern dress gave the leads and chorus more freedom for movement, and—in its dowdy/retro way—appealed to the eye. Set designer David Zinn and costume designer, Constance Hoffman, gave us plenty of color as eye candy in a dismal Soviet recreational hall, where the action took place. The downside of this was that it became difficult to distinguish the Russians and the Poles, and the clumsy solution was to drape the Poles in contemporary Polish flags. The entire production focused on the qualities that are most interesting for us today, the lonely figures of Xenia and Dimitrij. The corps de ballet was limited to one couple of outstanding dancers (unfortunately not named in the program), and we followed their relationship with fascination through the party scenes. This perfectly underscored the relationship of Xenia and Dimitrij—successfully lending it equal prominence with politics.

Xenia (Olga Tolkmit) at the tomb of her father, Boris Godunov. Photo Cory Weaver.

Xenia (Olga Tolkmit) at the tomb of her father, Boris Godunov. Photo Cory Weaver.

Unrelated, I believe, to the concept, were the outstanding performances by the soloists, all of them, the secondary parts as well as the leads. Peixin Chen, bass, was a strong Jove, who maintained an varied tone and lyrically-shaped lines in his solemn role. Levi Hernandez, baritone, proved a determined, well-sung Shuisky. Nora Sourouzian gave her important role as Marfa all the rich sound and eloquence it needed in a truly memorable performance. Her final scene in Act IV is too long, as Dvořák wrote it, and it fell on her to sustain it—and in this she succeeded, with her glowing mezzo voice, beautiful phrasing, and sensitive acting. Olga Tolkmit, who made such an affecting impression as young Elektra in Taneyev’s Oresteia just a few years ago, made a more than welcome return as the unhappy Xenia, showing her genius in movement, impeccably produced and expressive voice, and all-round acting. Melissa Citro gave us a brilliant, powerful Marina, with her blazing soprano. At first she had to struggle to find and focus her pitches, undermined by an excessive vibrato, but her strong, brilliant, even piercing, dramatic soprano eventually settled in, giving her considerable power in her fatal tête à tête with her husband. Clay Hilley, as Dimitrij, was appropriately enough the hero of the evening, maintaining his powerful tenor voice from beginning to end in a truly brutal part. (Dvořák thought to write Dimitrij’s part at the top of the tenor register.) Mr. Hilley, a Heldentenor, made it through with a resplendent voice that could serve magnificently as Siegmund, fine, nuanced phrasing, and an intelligent, many-sided approach to his role.

Maestro Botstein duly appreciated the lyricism of the best parts of the score and kept the show moving, with an energetic sense of its drama and a fine ear for the score’s Dvořákian colors, and the American Symphony Orchestra responded with eloquent playing. The Bard Summerscape Chorus under the direction of James Bagwell brought off the all-important double choruses of Russians and Poles with their customary top-quality singing, excellent command of language, and enthusiastic, imaginative acting they have such a passion for.

I still don’t care much for Dimitrij, but I love and admire everyone’s commitment to giving it their best. Bard has shown once again how opera comes to life.

Further References:

Hans Kohn, Pan-Slavism, its History and Ideology, 1953.

Stanley B. Winters, “Austroslavism, Panslavism, Russophilism in Czech Political Thought, 1870-1900,” Intellectual and social developments in the Habsburg Empire from Maria Theresa to World War I, 1975, pp. 175-202.

Leon Botstein, “Reversing the Critical Tradition: Innovation, Modernity, and Ideology in the Work and Career of Antonin Dvořák,” Dvořák and His World, ed. Michael Beckerman, Princeton. 1993, pp. 27-30.

Jan Smaczny, “Dvořák: The Operas,” Dvořák and His World, ed. Michael Beckerman, Princeton. 1993, pp. 104-133.

  1. Dvořák had worked to achieve this with his previous grand opera, Vanda, without success. Alan Houtchens, “From the Vistula to the Danube by Way of the Vltava: Dvořák’s Vanda in Vienna,” David R. Beveridge, ed. Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries, Oxford 1996, pp. 73-80.
  2. Mary Helena Kalil points out how very archaic the grand number opera was in 1881. Dimitrij‘s direct model, Les Huguenots, premiered in 1836! (The operas of Meyerbeer continued to be popular in Prague until late in the century.) Mary Helena Kalil, Reports from Offstage: Representations of Slavic History in Russian and Czech Opera, diss. Princeton, 2002, pp. 102f.
  3. Milan Kuna and Milan Pospíšl, “Dvorak’s Dimitrij-. Its History, Its Music,” in Musical Times, 120 (1979), 23-5.; Pospíšl, “Dvořák’s Dimitrij als Editionsproblem,” Jahrbuch für Opernforschung, 1986, 1, pp. 87-106; Milan Pospíšl, “Dvořák’s Dimitrij—a Challenge to Editors,” Beveridge, Rethinking Dvořák, pp. 99-106.
  4. John Tyrrell, Czech Opera, Cambridge, 1988, p. 82: “It was Dvořák himself who insisted on more ensembles and wrote formal concertatos of the grandest scale in all four acts.”
  5. Kalil, p. 86f.
  6. Letter F. L. Rieger to Červinková-Riegrová, quoted by Kalil, pp. 93f.
  7. John Tyrrell, Czech Opera, p. 162.
About the author

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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