Ask most people about
Dvořák opera, and the most likely response will be, 'Oh, yes, Rusalka'
and probably not much else. Dvořák's output of operas in fact includes
'The Jacobin', 'The Devil and Kate', 'Alfred', 'King and Charcoal
Burner', 'Vanda', 'Armida' and, of course, 'Dimitrij'. He wrote operas
at the beginning and end of his career, with 'The Jacobin' falling in
the middle. 'Dmitrij' marks the climax of the operas whose subjects
concerned national conflicts: 'Alfred' (1870; English/Danish); 'Vanda'
(1876, rev 1880; Poles/Germans). The other operas of the 1880s, which
include 'King and Charcoal Burner' and 'The Cunning Peasant,' are of
the Czech village comedy type.
'Dimitrij''s original version dates from
1881/2. Dvořák enjoyed a close working relationship with his librettist,
Marie Červinková-Riegrová (who was also the librettist of 'The
'Dimitrij' was presented in several different versions
during the composer's lifetime. It was premiered
in 1882, with cuts and revisions occuring in the 1886 piano reduction.
The work was further revised in 1894 (this version premiered in Prague
in that year), however the final performances in Dvořák's lifetime
(in Plzeň in 1904) consisted of the first
version combined with the third act in the second version. An edition
by Karel Kovarovič of the National Theatre was the preferred version
for a long time; the present recording returns to the first version,
including all music composed between 1882 and 1885,
and includes sections cut by Kovarovič as well as music played
in 1882 but never published. Such cuts as there are are detailed in
the booklet's introduction.
All of which leaves us with an opera of over three
hours of music. The story is a continuation of that of 'Boris Godunov',
so some of the characters will already be familiar - Shuisky (now Dimitrij's
chief antagonist), Marina and Xenia. The subject had previously been
set by Victorin de Joncières in 1876, wherein Dimitrij was a
much weaker character than that portrayed
by Dvořák. Instead of using Pushkin as a model, Dvořák's librettist
went to various other sources: 'Demitrius' by Schiller (1805) and 'Dmitri
Ivanovič' by Ferdinand Mikovec (1856). Dvořák's sources see
Dimitrij convinced of his claims to the throne with a gradual
realisation of his use as a political pawn. There is scope for a multitude
of operatic devices, which the composer seems to delight in: mass scenes
with eight-voice double-choruses and heated ensembles vie with tender
duets and impassioned soliloquies to combine
in one coherent whole. The booklet notes tell us that ''Dimitrij' is
Antonin Dvořák's most important stage composition equalled only
by 'Rusalka', and with a performance as convincing as the present one,
it is hard to disagree. Certainly, the listener is convinced
that this really is music straight from the composer's heart.
The warmth of the Czech orchestral forces is matched
here by a characteristically welcoming Supraphon recording. Under the
confident direction of Gerd Albrecht, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
carries the listener through the three hours of music with clear conviction.
A brief synopsis is as follows: After the death of
Boris, the Russian people are split between the followers of the Godunov
family (led by Shuisky) whilst others (led by General Basmanov) support
Dmitrij, assumed son of Ivan the Terrible and husband to the Polish
Marina of the Sandomir family. If Marfa (widow of Ivan the Terrible)
publicly recognises Dimitrij as her son, he will triumph. Despite knowing
that this is not the case, she does this to use him as a pawn for her
revenge on her old enemies. In Act 2, Dimitrij is seen breaking up altercations
between Poles and Russians and rescuing Xenia, with whom he forms a
relationship. He also breaks up a conspiracy led by Shuisky, who is
to be executed.
In Act 3, Xenia begs Dimitrij to have mercy on Shuisky.
Marina realises the link between the two and reveals Dimitrij's humble
origins, but he nevertheless intends to remain ruler. Finally, in Act
4 Xenia mourns her betrayed love. Marina, however, has Xenia killed
and reveals Dimitrij's origins. Dimitrij is finally shot by Shuisky.
The major parts are well taken. Leo Vodička
copes extremely well with the not inconsiderable demands of the title
role. His blessing of the Kremlin in Act 1 Scene 5 ("Pride of our Fatherland")
is particularly beautiful, the unaccompanied chorus emphasising the
prayer-like atmosphere. Again, he is expressive and heart-felt
in Act 2 Scene 1 towards Marina (the dramatic problems begin when he
asks her to become a Russian). His use of a little vibrato in Act 3
Scene 1, as he remembers Xenia, works well as he sounds appropriately
young and fervent (especially when he calls his beloved's name).
Lívia Ághová sounds young and
fresh as Xenia and is pure joy to hear, despite occasional tensing.
Her Act 4 monologue, 'I dreamt that pale Death touched me', is sad and
dejected, inflected with a specifically Dvořákian
longing; also, the duet in Act 3 (the Recognition Scene) brings out
the best in her.
Magdaléna Hajóssyóvá is
a powerful Marina with a clean attack, but is not quite believable (she
does rather sound as if she is singing with her head in a score).
Ivan Kusnjer as Shuisky is more than adequate, but
could possibly have brought greater drama and malignancy to the part:
his description of Dimitrij as 'the Polish Satan' could have been more
powerfully declaimed, for example. Ludek Vele's strong bass is impressive
in the part of Iov (Patriarch of Moscow), although he sounds strained
in the higher registers.
Of the remaining characters, Drahomíra Drobková's
Marfa is clear-toned, but she also makes it difficult to believe that
she is really torn apart by Dimitrij's pleas to accept him. Peter Míkulaš
has a well-focused voice as Basmanov.
Once again, it is Albrecht's sure and confident direction
which makes this set the triumph it is. I just wish the booklet had
been better prepared. Mis-spellings abound in the English translation
('I don't want a trone (sic) by fraud'; Xenia is sometimes rendered
as 'Xenie') and the libretto does not indicate when people and groups
sing simultaneously. Some pages were missing in my copy, and one passage
allocated to a chorus of Boyars is actually sung by the Patriarch. The
final line of the opera sums this up: there are French and German translations,
whereas the English merely reprints the original Czech. A shame, given
the care which evidently went in to the preparation of the performing
edition and, indeed, the performance itself.
Nevertheless, this remains
an essential purchase for all lovers of the music of Antonín Dvořák