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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Opera Preview: Dimitrij

Superconductor delves into "The Time of Troubles" and Dvořák's opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The incident that started it all: Ivan the Terrible (top) holds his dying son Ivanovich.
Painting by Vadim Repin. 
The biggest opera premiere of the summer is this Friday evening, when Bard SummerScape unveils the rarely performed Dmitrij by Antonín Dvořák. Dmitrij is a Czech opera that delves into a bloody and to historians, fascinating period: the Time of Troubles. With the premiere scheduled for Friday night, I thought it would be a good idea to delve into the history of Dmitrij, and its more famous "prequel": Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

In 1581, Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of all the Russias flew into a fit of rage, murdering his son Ivan Ivanyevich. The younger Ivan was being groomed to rule, and his death left the kingdom with two options: the simple-minded Fyodor and the very young Dmitri. After Ivan died in 1584, Fyodor reigned briefly as Tsar, although the real power of the throne lay with his brother in law: Boris Godunov. Boris was a boyar (nobleman) who was apparently a capable ruler behind the scenes. In 1617 Fyodor died, and the ten-year-old Dmitry died soon afterwards. Boris agreed to become the next Tsar, partially out of altruism and possibly partly out of self-preservation. His reign ended with his death in 160 as Polish armies marched on Moscow. Boris was succeeded by a mysterious young man who pretended to be the "long-lost" Dmitri Ivanyevich, the last son of Ivan IV.

Boris ascends to the throne at the start of the opera Boris Godunov,. This opera is based on an 1825 play by Aleksandr Pushkin. Boris marked Modest Mussorgsky's creative zenith and may be the greatest Russian opera ever written. However, its genesis was as tormented its title character's path to power. The original version (which can be heard on a  recording by the Mariinsky Opera with Valery Gergiev conducting) has just five scenes, no predominant female characters and major roles for three basses and a tenor. It is harsh yet strangely beautiful, and has been performed more frequently in recent years.

The historical record is ambivalent about Boris' guilt in the death of little Dmitry. However, Pushkin's play assumes, with a Shakespearean certainty that the Tsar murdered little Dmitri, and one of its characters, the monk Pimen was an eyewitness. Boris' guilt is central to his character's downward arc, a path accelerated by the arrival of a false "Dmitri" (the disguised monastic novice Grigory) who, backed by Polish and Catholic forces, leads an invasion of Russia. (In fact, history records three false Dmitris in the Time of Troubles, two of whom briefly attained the throne.

Mussorgsky was persuaded to revise his work in 1872 and resubmit it to the Imperial Theater. The revised version was premiered in 1874 and recognized as a work of genius, although the opera was met with disapproval from the Tsar himself. And it was dramatically and musically radical, with Russian folk songs, Orthodox church modes and sung Russian speech freely incorporated and a story that (with the additional scenes) burst forth from Russia for a scene at the Polish court and one in the Krömy Forest, showing the triumphant march of the False Dmitry onto Russian soil as a Fool weeps for the soul of the country.

"Dmitry" (whoever he was) reigned for just eleven months. What destroyed his reign was Princess Marina, the Polish noblewoman who figures prominently as the "love interest" (sort of) in the revised Mussorgsky opera. When Dmitry married her, she refused to renounce her Catholic faith and convert to Russian Orthodoxy. This was the match that lit the powder keg and allowed another Boyar, Prince Vasily Shuisky to lead a rebellion. The young pretender jumped outa window, broke his leg, and was ultimately killed by an armed force of boyars. Two later pretenders: "False Dmitry II" and "False Dmitry III" were respectively murdered and quietly executed. They did not get their own operas.

Dvořák's opera, which will be staged starting this weekend at the Fisher Center, is based on an unfinished play play by Schiller: Demetrius about the first False Dmitry. When you see Dimitrij it may help to  have some familiarity with Boris Godunov. You will recognize not just the False Dmitry (the tenor part in the Mussorgsky opera) but also the Polish princess (now Tsarina) Marina Mniskova and Shuisky himself, who is an antagonist in the opera but in history, became the next Tsar. His reign lasted less than four years succumbing to yet another Polish invasion.

Only ten years separate the premiere of the revised Boris and Dimitrij, but the two operas are extraordinary in their differences. Dvořák forgoes any semblance of Russian folk melody for a Romantic style in the mold of grand opera. The composer's gift for melody is met by Wagner-sized orchestration and grand chromatic effects, much in the manner of the composer's better known operas Kate and the Devil and Rusalka. If these performances are a success, Dimitrij may rise above its status as an operatic and historical footnote to become a repertory work.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.