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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 3: Dimitrij, Soloists, Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox. Royal Albert Hall, Sunday, July 18th, 2004 (CC)
A rare chance to see the great canvas of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij is not to be sniffed at, particularly when the cast (at least the female part of it) is positively stellar. Elena Prokina first impressed me at the Proms (Rachmaninov’s Aleko) and seems to have moved on to super-stardom. Czech mezzo Dagmar Peckova will need no introduction to Supraphon lovers, and is just as impressive in the flesh. Add to that the excellent Bulgarian soparno Krassimira Stoyanova and the recipe for success is almost complete.
Almost. The opera is, after all, called Dimitrij, a part taken on this occasion by Australian Stuart Skelton. The bio provided in the Proms programme indicates he has taken on Florestan (Fidelio, Vienna Staatsoper in 2001-2), Parsifal, Erik (Der fliegende Holländer), and in 2005 he will be Trieste’s Lohengrin. All this implies a huge voice ready for anything – the reality was somewhat removed from this.
Dimitrij is a huge canvas (the performance began at 6.30 and ended 10.10, with only one interval). It is a fascinating one though, and we are lucky that Supraphon brought out a recording in 1991 (which I reviewed on Musicweb and which likewise presents Dvorak’s original version.) Certainly the present cast outstrips the recorded one; and Hickox seemed to be mostly inside the music (not always the case with this conductor.)
The story is a continuation of Boris Godunov, although do not expect the depth of characterization of intensity that Mussorgsky set up (particularly when Boris is heard in his original version.) Throughout in Dimitrij it is as if Dvořák is on a mission to prove himself in the field of grand opera – the miracle is that he almost succeeds and one is left with the impression that this work is distinctly undervalued (an impression I got, also, when listening to the Supraphon set.)
The cast on this occasion was distinctly multi-national. Stuart Skelton hails from Australia and is Cincinatti-trained. As implied above, the promise of his history of roles belied the strength of his voice (from my seat in the stalls, but near the orchestra.) Initial impressions were positive, however – he was notable for a lovely warm top and stylish phrasing. Yet even here, when Pecková entered with Marfa’s comments, we moved into a different league, her creamy confidence winning this listener over immediately. Pecková’s burnished tone was a consistent delight as Marfa, widow of Ivan the Terrible and alleged mother to Dimitrij (she recognises him as a ply to exact vengeance on her enemies.) When she throws herself into Dimitrij’s arms and cries ‘My child! My Son!’, it was a marvellously dramatic moment. Pecková’s legato is a joy to experience, and is entirely fitting for the nature of this work.
Indeed, Skelton’s Dimitrij was frequently underpowered, no more so than in the aria that opens Act III (wherein he bordered at times on the inaudible!) It was in Act II, though, that doubts about Skelton’s suitability were really cast. He was too quiet in his first solo (was he trying to be tender? Maybe…) Prokina’s proud entrance as she (Marina) dismisses the idea of becoming a Russian and denouncing her Polish heritage showed just how fine a singer she is. Her pitching was miraculous (her Czech was noticeably better than Skelton’s), her legato seamless. Yet she had power, too. Indeed, throughout, this was as complete a reading of the role as one could hope to hear.
Prokina’s Act III recounting of Dimitrij’s history was spell-binding (it begins properly at the word ‘Poslyš’, ‘Listen!’, a word that had so much inherent force, nobody could avoid obeying!) To experience Prokina at her best is to be in the presence of a very special singer, and here she provided one of the evenings true highlights.
Krassimira Stoyanova’s Xenie was a rich and beautiful assumption. Stoyanova is blessed with the ability to turn a phrase magically and her ardently lyrical singing was a continual joy. I shall be watching out for more of this young lady (alas her impressive list of upcoming engagements does not include London in its tally.) Her long solo at the start of Act IV was completely, and appropriately, desolate (Hickox pointing up Dvořák’s miraculously inventive scoring here); her statement (to Dimitrij) of ‘Jsem věčně tvou’ (‘I am yours forever’) magnificently fortissimo, yet fully toned (the magical duet that crowns this section is surely Dvořák at his finest.) Yet perhaps Stoyanova’s greatest expression came at her expression of grief, where everything was pared down and full of intensity.
Dalibor Janis’ Šujský was large of voice, yet sensitive. Indeed, he has almost the last words of the opera, and here his massive voice came in, providing a fitting climax to the drama. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Basmanov started weakly and wobbly, but he improved as the night wore on into a reading of rugged reliability. Bass Manfred Hemm was a powerful Jov.
Richard Hickox throughout guided things more than ably. He showed a surprising sense of being at home, pacing the drama carefully. A particular success was the ‘Recognition Scene’ (not an official label, but where Xenie realises that her rescuer had in fact been Dimitrij in part 2 of Act II.) Of course, Hickox is well known for his handling of choruses, and here was no exception. The chorus has an important part to play, whether representing priests or people, and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir was quite simply resplendent.
A triumph overall, then. A pity more people did not go – there were vast tracts of empty seats, and the Arena was half-full at best. If you don’t know Dimitrij, do try to hear it in the Supraphon version. It is high time Dvořák’s operatic reputation stopped resting on only one work.