Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” is a staple of the operatic repertoire. Dvorák’s “Dimitrij” is not, but it takes up where Mussorgsky left off in early 17th-century tsarist Russia, telling a tragic story that Shakespeare could hardly have bettered. Friday at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera presented the American premiere of the work in its uncut version, and it was a historic night for opera in Boston.
The Dimitri of Russian history was the youngest son and last possible heir of Tsar Ivan the Terrible; an epileptic, he died in 1591, just 8 years old. Mussorgsky’s opera is predicated on the idea (probably not true) that Boris Godunov ordered Dimitri’s murder to clear his way to the throne, which he took in 1598. Mussorgsky’s Tsar Boris is undone when a Russian monk pretending to be Dimitri attracts Polish support and makes his way to Moscow. Overcome by guilt, Boris collapses and dies.
That’s where, in 1605, Marie Cervinková-Riegrová’s libretto opens. The critical difference is that her Dimitri believes he really is Ivan’s son, miraculously saved from death. When Dimitri arrives in Moscow, accompanied by his Polish fiancee, Marina, and her Polish retinue, Ivan’s widow, Marfa, acknowledges him as her son and the people proclaim him tsar.
It’s a short-lived honeymoon, however. Dimitri and Marina squabble over whether the new regime should be Russian or Polish, Eastern Orthodox or Catholic. Dimitri goes to the Kremlin to pray and finds Boris’s daughter, Xenia, on the run from lusty Polish nobles; not only does he save Xenia, he falls in love with her. Marina, in a fit of jealousy, tells Dimitri he’s an impostor, a Russian serf. Then she murders Xenia and exposes Dimitri to the Russian court, with predictable results.
Dvorák was unacquainted with Mussorgsky’s opera when he composed “Dimitrij,” which was completed in 1882 and had its premiere in Prague that same year. Despite undergoing a number of revisions, “Dimitrij” never achieved international success; the American premiere, a concert version performed in English, didn’t take place till 1984. Odyssey’s presentation was just the third in America, and the first to use the critical edition of Czech scholar Milan Pospíšil.
One explanation for the opera’s lack of success might be its length. At Jordan Hall, Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose pulled out every stop in a performance that ran just over four hours, with a 25-minute intermission. The production was lavish in every other way: an orchestra of 66, a chorus of 62, and a cast of vocal soloists headlined by three Czech singers.
Rose couldn’t do much with the opera’s rambling overture, but otherwise his reading accorded full justice to the thunder and lightning of Russian history. Dvorák’s score, a Czech-flavored amalgam of Brahms and Wagner, expresses the national conflict between Russia and Poland by setting the harmonies of Eastern Orthodox liturgy against the triple time of the mazurka. There are even fascinating intimations of a contemporary work by Dvorák’s fellow Bohemian Gustav Mahler, “Das klagende Lied.”
Odyssey’s cast was excellent. Aleš Briscein was both a naive and heroic Dimitri, Siegmund-like in his unabashed love of both Mother Russia and Xenia. He was the best actor, hardly looking at his score. Olga Jelínková was a tense Xenia better suited to sorrow than joy; Dana Burešová as Marina exuded pride and scorn from the moment she entered. Irina Mishura was a conflicted Marfa who initially acknowledges the false Dimitri to spite the Godunov family and then hesitates when asked to swear to his identity before God. Mark S. Doss, wringing his hands, gave an apt gravity to Prince Shuisky, who knows that the real Dimitri is dead; James Demler, filling in for Pawel Izdebski, was an anchoring bass voice as Patriarch Iov.
In a way, though, the star of “Dimitrij” is the chorus, which as the Russian people is easily swayed in favor of Dimitri and just as easily swayed against him. Odyssey’s ensemble delivered on every count. It anguished over being tsarless orphans at the beginning of the opera, and again at the end. Some things in Russia never change.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.