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Monday, July 31, 2017

Opera Review: Tsarface

The Time of Troubles comes to Bard College with Dimitrij.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Family snapshot: the false tsar Dimitrij (Clay Hilley, center)
flanked by Marfa (Nora Sourouzian) and Marina, his wife (Melissa Citro).
Photo courtesy Bard College and Bard SummerScape.

The operas of Antonín Dvorak are central to the repertory in that composer’s native land, but apart from Rusalka, remain neglected here in the United States. That may change after this weekend, when Bard SummerScape offered the first fully staged U.S. Performances of Dimitrij. Planned to be Dvorak's breakthrough international success, this opera is his most ambitious stage work: an absorbing, turbulent drama chronicling the start of the Time of Troubles, the most turbulent period in Russian history,


Dimitrij, which opened Friday night and runs through August 6 is a four-act, four- hour opera based on a Schiller play chronicling the rise and even more rapid fall of the False Dmitry, a pretender to the Russian Throne who claimed to be the last surviving son of Ivan the Terrible. The possible murder of Dmitry is also the subject of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Dvorak's opera, which premiered just ten years later, tells a some what omanticized version of what happened next.

In this version, taken from the unfinished Friedrich Schiller play Demitrius,  Dimitrij is more than just an adventurous ex-monk who hitches his wagon to the Polish army and marches on Moscow. He struggles with disparate warring factions of Poles and Russians. He is also caught in a very Don Carlos-like love triangle, torn between his Polish Catholic wife Marina (herself a figure in the Mussorgsky opera) and Xenia, the surviving daughter of the late Tsar Boris. A nocturnal meeting at Boris' tomb (where the pretender saves Xenia from a gang of marauders) owes something to Verdi's Ernani. In the fourth act, the arrival of a squad of murderers in Marina's employ (they're there to kill Xenia) owes something to that composer’s setting of Macbeth.

An American mystery writer once said that opera was a flimsy construction. "It's like a wire hanger, and they hang the voices on that." Here, the framework was adorned with a exceptional cast of young artists, iled by three singers who may make a substantial impact in years to come. To start with, tenor Clay Hilley made a powerful impression as Dimitrij. He caught the Pretender's mix of narcissism and heroic vulnerability, singing with bright tone over the game but sometimes over-enthusiastic Wagnerisms rising from the pit.

Melissa Citro displayed a big, bright soprano that was scattershot at first but found its focus in the second act. She was hot in temper but cool in presentation. Proud and haughty, this unsympathetic leading lady turns vengeful and then murderous as she discovers the love between Dimitrij and Xenia, In the latter role, Olga Tolkmit impressed despite her character's limited emotional range. She a sang a lovely Act II duet with Mr. Hilly, one of the points in this opera where Dvorak's gift for melody blossomed into life. Her character was rewarded with a long and memorable death scene in the final act. Moira Sourouzian was convincing as Marra, epithet widow of zIvan who until the final scene of the opera, goes along with Dimitrij's charade. 

The opera was dominated  by the orchestra and chorus, both in tip-top shape despite the challenges of singing in Czech. They were dressed in 1989 period costume: Led Zeppelin t-shirts, flannel shirts and jeans. Director Anne Bogart intended to move the Time of Troubles to the point in modern Russian history when communism fell new Russian Federation rose under its first president, Boris Yeltsin. Dimitrij and Shuisky wore suits, although the latter wore Monomakh's Cap, the oldest crown of the Russian tsars, Officials of the Russian Orthodox Church (led by the Patriarch, who was played with resonance and power by Peisen Chen) were in religious garb: gorgeous, elaborate robes that seemed a little out of place.

The show took place on a unit set, with damaged paint and plaster walls and a communist slogan painted across the back in large letters. This unit space was re-dressed into whatever sets were needed: a room in the a royal palace, an apartment in Shuisky's house, even the twin tombs of Ivan and Boris. The late Tsars displayed, Lenin-style under glass. It was onto this set that Dmitri and his followers marched in, their Polish banners and flags flying. It was in is same place, before a large Russian-style crucifix that The false Dimitrij met his fate: shot in the head by Vasily Shuisky, the next Tsar.



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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.