Opera in five acts and seven tableaux. Running Time 2 hours 11 minutes.
This opera is to some extent what got me to start this blog. After around five years of not adding any operas to my collection I bought the Palazzo Bru Zane recording that is about to be reviewed here and it got me thinking about what other opera rarities I was denying myself. I was bored of the standard items (Traviata, Aida, Carmen, I have three different recordings each of The Flying Dutchman and Luisa Miller and all seven of the worthwhile Mozart operas). It got me into thinking about expanding the French section of my collection as well. Well, 13 months later, my collection is about 75% larger. I learned about Catalani and studied more about Meyerbeer. I learned about Jacopo Foroni who’s opera Cristina, regina di Svezia made a big impact at Wexford, and the conductor Franco Faccio whose opera Amleto falls into the same category as Boito’s Mefistofele as an Italian “reformist” opera. I finally bought that recording of Khovanshchina and learned more about Tchaikovsky’s lesser known operas. All of it started with this neglected but melodious work by Victorin Jonciere. The plot will seem vaugely familiar to those who know Boris Godunov but it is so focused on the domestic, romantic, and frankly Polish situation that transpired during the beginning of the Time of Troubles in Russia (1603-1613). The featured image is the cover of the CD-Book release under review here which is based on the cover of the original piano-vocal score from the 1870s.
PLOT: Poland, Moscow and the land in between, 1604-1606. Vasili returns to a Polish monastery to visit the monk who raised him. He tells him how he was seduced by Vanda (the king’s cousin) and fell in love with Marina who has disguised herself as a gypsy girl to flee an arranged marriage. The Count of Lusatia tells the monk that Vasili is really Dimitri, the youngest son of Ivan IV. Dimitri tells Marina to go to Ivan’s widow Marpha and tell her that he will soon be returning to Russia. Lusatia and Vanda conspire to get Dimitri to marry the latter and not Marina and the King makes it a pre-condition for his financial support of the invasion of Russia. Eventually at least one person dies and all of this would make a great “Great Performances” episode if it were ever staged again.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The overture * consists of a series of tune that will be found again later in the opera starting with a very dramatic motive that symbolizes Vanda. It suddenly crescendos Meyerbeer-style and gives us a military tune (Dimitri?) before bursting again and then this beguiling bit before yet another theme and then bells and then deflation and tremolo. Quiet and then a new sweet tune (albeit with a little bit of sadness), I think it represents Marina then some foreshadowing of Marpha sweetly chimes in for a while before the military bit pops back in (although this time it has more of an Offenbach or Gounod tinge to it). Bang! Quiet again, Marina returns and then suddenly there is a Greek chorus with a message and bells again. End.
ACT 1: Outside a monastery on the Don River, Poland?
14: And we are off! A chorus of Cossacks give us the most Bizet-ish (French that is and extremely rapid) chorus that a bunch of Russian warriors would ever give us and then immediately Dimitri (Vasili) informs the prior as to what he has been up to. The accompaniment is tuneful but at first a bit general. Against his better judgement he got sucked in by Vanda (how bad is she though?) and later saw the error of his ways and fell in love with Marina who he has just duelled for. As a nice narration piece it is very lyrical but much of it is really just well orchestrated, melodic, and consistent recitative between Dimitri (mostly) and the Prior (interjections), although a hint of the latter’s prayer is given here which is nice *.
15: The Gypsy troop comes on to a nice clarinet solo. Their chorus is not so bad *; their chief is a high baritone. It isn’t what you expect but it is tuneful. They leave as quickly as they came. Marina is exhausted but has enough energy to thinking about her beloved Vasili to a mostly quiet accompaniment. Marina’s exclamations of “Vasili” are in themselves a leitmotif and run immediately into his return.
19: The first love duet **. Finally, the temperature rises and with some nice vocal gymnastics from both of them although the constant exclamations of “Vasili!” “Marina” are a little elementary, but this might also be the point. Much of the dialogue here is explanation: why and how did Marina escape with the gypsies after Vasili killed her fiancee in that duel. Much cooing takes place and then they are both deliriously in love. This melody will return later.
26: The Prior comes on with his evening prayer *. Hints of tragic foreshadowing on the the words “la mort” and the lovers interject their own prayer that God bless their love. A nice soft little melody.
27: Then, in about four minutes, the Count of Lusatia comes on and informs the Prior on about twenty years of Russian history, much of it in recitative. How the Prior just immediately accepts all of this without having a prior history with the Count is odd because it all happens in a flash. The duet turns furious, but not bad as the two men predict the fall of Boris Godunov *.
30: Marina returns with a plus charmante air to her theme *, it is almost like a sunny patch in a dark storm but I keep feeling that there was a better way that Joncieres could have resolved the ending here than he did.
32: The last two and a half minutes Vasili reveals what he just found out from the Prior. He is actually Dimitri and his mummy is held prisoner by that wicked Boris off in Moscow so Marina is given her marching orders to go to mums house. There is a return of the love duet theme ** and they kiss just as the Count of Lusatia happens upon them to the most shimmering orchestral accompaniment. Curtain.
ACT 2: Vanda’s renassiance palace in Warsaw.
2: Sinister, ornery, brooding, how does one describe the first bars here? There is a return of the melody from Marina’s intro aria (the first one right after the gypsies left). Suddenly another patch of sunlight, this one actually really good ** as Vanda’s maids sing while doing, well, I’m not sure. Vanda interrupts the proceedings with how excited she is about Dimitri’s return to a bel canto-ish coloratura flourish. The Count of Lusatia arrives and is apparently welcomed by Vanda. He fills her in on that whole Marina issue (they need to get rid of her or at least get Dimitri off of her). This is in recitative but the orchestra is constantly teasing and rich, especially as Vanda leaves at the Count’s instruction as he is about to interview Dimitri.
7, 9: The Count’s aria is a surprisingly Mozartean piece, but very lovely ** as he goes over his plan. Suddenly it goes into a brilliant cabaletta which is totally out of character for the 1870s but would have fit perfectly in an opera about thirty years earlier, still it is good stuff ***.
10: Dimitri arrives to the most agitated accompaniment, the Count wastes no time in telling him that he is going to have to give up Marina if he wants the backing he will need from the Polish king (after all Vanda is his cousin). Dimitri really doesn’t want to give up Marina (and doesn’t) but the two men go about arguing and getting all introspective in the most melodic and towards the end in the most lilting way **.
13: Lusatia tells Dimitri that Marina and Marpha will more than likely be or will become Boris’ prisoners and may even be executed and that his only solution to saving them is for Dimitri to wed Vanda (the music here is so Verdian so it must be worth a *).
14: Then, suddenly, there is a musical apotheosis as the court of the Polish king arrives in all of its splendour. This is probably the grandest number in the entire opera ** even if it isn’t its greatest melody. Vanda comes on again grandly and the three express their thoughts individually before the king arrives. Almost every theatrical convention that one would expect is pulled here and then the orchestra goes mildly psychotic on us with a whirlwind and then crash. Silence, Vanda breaks the silence in her address to her cousin, the King. The King is okay about this whole invading Russia thing but he wants some securities with regards to Dimitri. Quiet again, but this time it is broken by the orchestra and then Vanda asks to marry Dimitri, he immediately refuses this proposal but the Count tells him that he has little choice (which is sort of true for the moment at least). The king makes another address and then the chorus comes high romance, Lusatia warns Dimitri and the latter collaspses in melodic terror.
21: Vanda starts us off on a golden melody *** which sustains itself through Dimitri’s terror, Lusatia’s mild glotting/fear mongering, the chorus takes it up as well. It finally is put to rest by the king and then on a glorious reprisal of the grand chorus from a few minutes ago this time it blows the house down, or close to it at least. A fine adventurous symphonic whirlwind brings the act to a close on the victorious hopes of the Polish court.
Scene 1: A room in the mansion of Marpha, Tsarvitsa dowager.
3: After a very brief prelude Marpha and Marina are engaged in a wonderfully melodic interview as Marina tries to inspire joy in the old woman and Marpha is cautious and this quickly turns to agitation *. Marina rebuts with “Votre fils est vivant!” and that she knows his is awesome because he is her fiancee. Then they both get agitated but there is a continued sense of whirl in the orchestra even if Marpha keeps on getting sad and Marina pushes her mission statement to death almost. It is overall a very well constructed and melodic number through and through. Marpha’s housekeeper announces the arrival of the Patriarch of Moscow (Job) and asks Marina out for the next interview because he is an “agent” of Boris.
8: The Patriarch arrives to a rather Verdian accompaniment but once he starts to sing it is totally French. For seven minutes the two discuss current events: Boris is worried about this pretender Dimitri; what will Marpha do, acknowledge him? Marpha remains neutral officially regarding recognition although she is hostile to the Patriarch. When things heat up it really gets going here and the number is overall ** even though you can tell that these two people have a most volatile relationship. The Patriarch storms out to some The Nutcracker style melodic depression.
15: Suddenly another patch of sunlight after (or is it during) the storm. Marpha theme music comes on and she contemplates if Marina’s fiancee. Then there is a wonderful prayer to Nature in the hope that a mother might see her son again after eighteen years. There orchestra crescendos higher and higher on this noble melody and the number could hardly be less than ***. Well worth the lovely repeats. By the end she is rather certain that Dimitri is who he says he is.
Scene 2: The Polish camp outside Moscow.
23: A lite military prelude brings in, along with Marpha’s previous aria, a gloss over the music that is more energized to say the least. Anyway, Dimitri wants Boris dead, and doesn’t want to marry Vanda, and the news of the latter is up immediately and the former after a lovely song by Dimitri to the bells of Moscow ***.
28: The news arrives that Boris is dead and the Prior shows up again and praises Dimitri who is shocked that Godunov is no more. The army raises standard, anticipating victory to the military theme from the overture which floats a bit like the Blackadder theme. There is a return of the lite military theme from the beginning of the scene before Lusatia discovers Vanda disguised as a soldier and she reveals that she now knows that Dimitri has no plan of marrying her and she is not so much enraged yet and incredibly distraught. Then there is a brief ballet: the Kolomyiaka *, a nice and furious bit of faux-Russian local colour. It brings the act to a satisfactory close but would make a better entr’acte into the next act.
Scene 1: Dimitri’s tent.
0: Immediately we are warp speed into the act, warring music flying around like no today and then a drinking chorus of warriors *. The orchestration of the military theme here is so exciting and dancing with cymbals and bells working overtime even if the chorus is only just good. Lusatia arrives like he is in an early Verdi opera (what else is new?) and then there is a reprisal of the chorus. The Count proposes a toast to the new Tsarina: Vanda. Dimitri is horrified and the chorus goes all scamper and French on us as they go off so the two men can duke it out.
6: Lusatia reveals the whole story to Dimitri *. Boris proposed to have Dimitri killed, offering to pay for it and the Count accepted and did the deed and Boris refused to pay so the Count found a peasant boy (Vasili) and had him believe he was Dimitri and raise him in the monastery. Now that the truth is out, Dimitri has no choice but to obey Lusatia. All of this is brooding until Dimitri is fed up with everything and stabs Lusatia. A messenger arrives announcing that Marpha requests audience with him and Dimitri has Lusatia’s body taken out. Marpha whispers to herself (upon seeing Lusatia’s body) that that is the man who killed her son.
12, 16: Finally, after much discussion between prospective mother and son there is a good melody starting with Dimitri. Marpha takes it up but it is even more brooding until Marpha breaks down and Dimitri gives her hope in the most amazing way possible: a golden melody ***, one of the most liltingly heavenly and yet maternally chaste. The officer shows up again to tell Dimitri that a deligation from Moscow has arrived to surrender the city to him. What follows is an arioso for Dimitri **, rather melodic as he and Marpha are reconciled.
Scene 2: The camp, Moscow in the distance.
20: Suddenly, excitement! POW! The armies assemble as the deligation is about to meet Dimitri and Marpha to joint cheers. The Prior has a little prayer. The Boyars pay homage to Dimitri in the most melodic way, an a cappella male chorus **, soon the orchestra and the women get in on it and it rises even further with Dimitri and Marpha making exclamations of joy. In the last thirty seconds or so Vanda comes on swearing deadly revenge for being jilted but for the moment we bask in the excitement of victory.
ACT 5: Complex, The square before the Cathedral with a balcony overlooking.
0: Vanda theme music returns at last as she goes psychotic fantasizing about whatever it is Marina and Dimitri are doing as she spies on their balcony. She reveals that Lusatia is still alive and that after she has tended to him he has recovered. She is a wronged woman bent on revenge but the aria is so brooding yet oddly weaker than many of the previous items *. Trumpets are heard.
5: Then, Dimitri and Marina come on the balcony to harp accompaniment *** and bask in their victory, their serenity and the fact that so far everything is working out in their favour. “See the day!” Everything is cloud 9 for the lovers while Vanda is deadly miserable spying on them from below. The finale ecstasy is too much. Nice one Vic.
9: Instead of the more grand choral coronation sequence one finds in the actual score, we get a bit that proves Lusatia is definately still alive and then a grand Coronation based on the second theme from the overture, only dressed up grand for the occasion *.
10: The Finale *: Job stops the party at the cathedral and orders that Marpha take a public vow swearing that Dimitri is who he says he is. Then that Greek Chorus pops up and Joncieres is definitely trying to mimic Meyerbeer’s coronation scene in Le Prophete here (poorly unfortunately) as everyone asks God to reveal the truth to them and have Marpha swear one way or another but she stalls to a recognizable melody. The last 100 second are full of emotion as Marpha sees Lusatia in that balcony with the gun and is about to swear, the shot is fired, the people freak out calling for either the death of Dimitri or Lusatia and Dimitri declares quietly that he is dying (this is rather touching, if pathetic) and with Marpha and Marina surrounding him in his finale moment neither the chorus (nor us) know if he was the pretender or not.
This opera is a mixed bag of musical goodies and plot holes. The question which dominates the work: is he or isn’t he? is never satisfactorily resolved. There is also the character of Vanda in general which I will return to but I will digress now to highlight some of the music. The first act starts off with a leitmotif parade (although thankfully some of the very best melodies are spared for later). This quarry sustains much of the “ordinary” music in the opera, that is the recitative and there is nothing really that is wrong with it. Then we have a brief (and admittedly cut) opening male chorus followed by the first of many interviews which forward the very plodding plot. The gypsies come and go but Marina although slow at first, presents us with the opera’s first great music in her love duet with Dimitri. Lusatia’s explanations to the Prior are not as good as his glorious cabaletta in act 2 but they do the job and then we return to the love music. Vanda brings with her a sense of impending doom which never shakes off entirely but the female chorus that starts off act 2 is a charming number. Then after much more plodding recitative we come to the Count’s aria which is a wonderful if retro piece. Then everything goes mad with the arrival of the Polish king and court. Act three starts slow but builds up to two great set pieces (the long aria for Marpha with her prayer to nature and later Dimitri’s short but sweet declaration to the bells of Moscow). The ballet is edited but the selection was worth mentioning. After the drinking chorus and Lusatia going into more explanations we come to the heart of act 4, the duet between Marpha and Dimitri who are meeting for the first time (ever? in decades?). Then there is the homage scene. Act five peaks with the lush trio for the members of the central triangle as the finale never really comes to a boil. So on to the two plot bugaboos: Dimitri/Vasili and Vanda. Although the other characters are either relatively strongly drawn or more like cameos (Marpha, Lusatia, and Marina fall into the former category; the King, Patriarch Job, and the Prior fall into the other) these two actually violate their own personalities at times. Dimitri’s violent attack on Lusatia after the big reveal is disturbingly uncharacteristic even (if true) it foils all of his dreams and that he is able to immediately come off of it to his beautiful interview with Marpha makes it even more strange. This attack (proven unsuccessful) provides the only justification for Lusatia to assassinate Dimitri because it otherwise comes off as being terribly cruel. Vanda, far from coming off as the wronged party in a love triangle or even as a woman justifiably scorned appears to be mentally ill what with her rapid personality change from sweet thing in act 2 to murderess in act 5, Dimitri’s foreshadowing in act one that she is bad news, her cross-dressing as a Polish soldier in order to spy on Dimitri not to mention that between acts 2 and 5 we see and hear so little from her so her motivation, along with the assassination itself, smell of rancid fatalism. And that is what brings down the opera from alpha level even more so than the quality of the relatively lush and melodic if at times thin score we have here. An additional note on this is that the recording is edited and the edited numbers are also some of the weakest such as the opening chorus and prayer in act 1, the ballet, and the coronation march sequence in act 5 which a glance at the piano-vocal score on IMSLP will demonstrate involve cameo soloists and choral fixtures that the conductor (budgetary reasons?) decided to cut. However, I must say that the soloists on the recording, and in particular Philippe Talbot in the title role, do a great job here, wonderful singing! That said, the poor thing is so fatalistic in a morbid Werther sort of way. Bring on the pistols! Still, it is a credible B+ and six of the numbers here are absolutely incredible A+ class. I would love to see it staged and presented on television.