Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
I’ve been saving this pleasure review for a long time. This is my personal favourite of Dvorak’s operas (actually I like this thing more than Aida), and I figured we needed a new Eastern European entry, this fits the bill perfectly. Although perhaps not as orchestrally advanced as Rusalka, I find the main characters to be far better drawn (exception being Rusalka herself) than those in later Dvorak tragic operas. It is a stunningly sensitive and romantic work which focuses on the male title character and his relationship with three women who could not possibly be more different from each other in terms of personality, and yet they all in one way or another love him, while at the same time lead him to his death.
I had wanted to review the 3 and a half hour long 1989 recording from Supraphon conducted by Gerd Albrecht with Leo Marian Vodicka in the title role which is the first recording of this opera that I owned and still cherish, however it isn’t available to listen to anywhere on the internet and so this 1946 recording (the only other one to date although there is a movie version which is heavily cut to 101 minutes!) conducted by Karel Nedbal with Beno Blachut (my favourite Czech opera singer incidentally!) will have to make do even though it is a full hour shorter than the 1989 recording which I highly recommend checking out! Incidentally, I find that the shorter recordings seem to highlight the best music from the opera, thus avoiding moments that might otherwise reduce the impression of the work.
Just as a shout out, the librettist was a woman, Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova. This might explain the three strong female characters and the sensitivity of the male lead and the humanity of the baritone role of Shuisky. Incidentally the final act (there were to be five in the original libretto) was to depict Xenia’s funeral during which the Poles and Russians were to break into a deathless feud. And yes, if you were thinking that this was designed to be a Meyerbeerian-style grand opera, you would be right. It is probably the closest Dvorak ever got to the Meyerbeerian style and I personally think it is his finest score (Rusalka fans eat your heart out!).
LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The prelude **, the first movement of an extended overture Dvorak later completed which lasts about 12 minutes, starts with the “fate/love” motif which ends up dancing with a motif for Xenia. It climaxes in sheer drama, goes back quietly, climaxes again and then ends on lilting variations of the Xenia theme.
ACT 1: Before the Kremlin, Moscow. (37 minutes)
5: Dvorak treats us to a choral precis which delivers a lot of background very quickly but unlike similar sequences (I Lombardi) this one is rather magnificent ***. Starting with the women (sopranos then altos echoing) accompanied mostly by harp and strings, then the males in unison, sotto voce. It has the solemnity of a Russian liturgy. Finally the strings take off and the chorus freaks and starts praying to G-d for mercy “Hospodi Pomiluji” as Shuisky appears and tells the people to recognize Fyodor Godunov as Tsar and not the Dimitri pretender.
13: General Basmanov persuades the people to recognize Dimitri and leads them off in a grand choral number ***.
15: Left alone, Shuisky goes over a lot of stuff about how he doesn’t believe this Dimitri nonsense as a slightly scary male chorus murders the surviving Godunov family members off-stage **.
17: The frightened entrance of Xenia ***. She recounts the assassinations of her mother and brother in bloody detail to some of the most beautiful orchestral music, and she begs Shuisky for protection. They flee from the scene together.
19: The arrival of Dimitri in Moscow is really just another opportunity for a grand choral number *** including a section in which the orchestra sounds a little like rain drops.
23: Dimitri’s address to the Kremlin is as mystical and beautiful as a cold winter dawn ***.
26: The Dimitri-Marfa interview ***. Marfa almost instantly recognizes that Dimitri is not her son. She addresses him as a prince “Knizhe”, but he pleads with her to address him as her son. Marfa takes flight on a word of woe “Zhel” as Dimitri does vocal circles to a somewhat pathetic melody about her and the flutes pirouette about. She ultimately does exclaim her recognition of him (in order to regain power). The chorus is excited (obviously), Shuisky, who has popped back, doesn’t buy any of it.
32: The act finale ***, led by Marfa on an utterly amazing melody which resembles the sounds of wings ascending. Then we go through all these different features in order to end the act (in the 1989 recording it takes a full minute to wrap up).
ACT 2: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: A ballroom in the Kremlin.
0: The act opens with one of the most attractive Mazurkas ever composed ***.
4: It comes off from the dance high only a bed of delicate orchestration as Dimitri and Marina argue, or rather he begs her not to fight with him and become a mother for the people they rule just as he is now their father, of sorts. A haunting melody **. She responds with a slightly stereotypical dancing melody as she declares her disdain for the Muscovites and Russians in general. Dimitri goes back to being sad and haunted again, but in the most lilting way. After all this monologue back and forth, they have a patch of duettino which is very nice.
9: She departs and he contemplates how she has changed from when they were in Poland. Has their love died? **. This is a very deep sentiment, and not the sort of thing one usually encounters in an opera libretto. He has not met Xenia, but already his relationship with Marina has deteriorated to the point that he seriously feels that their marriage is a grave.
11: Marina’s drinking song **, a coloratura extravaganza in which she and the chorus of Poles tick off the Russians by praising Poland to an insane degree. An easily catchy piece.
15: The Russians bring in an air of seriousness into the proceedings which the Poles find annoying and Dimitri is forced to return and break up the fighting ***.
Scene 2: Between the tombs of Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov in the vault of the Tsars in the Uspensky Cathedral.
18: A beautiful entr’acte *** which reintroduces a series of musical themes from earlier in the opera which will be expanded upon in the following scene.
20: Dimitri has sought refuge from the turmoil of the Polish-Russian infighting among the tombs of the men he believes to be his ancestors. Yet again another gorgeous tenor aria ***.
24: Xenia rushes in, having escaped the drunken Polish soldiers who are wrecking havoc above. A beautiful duet develops ***, although Xenia does not know that Dimitri is present as she prays by her father’s tomb so it is really more of an aria for soprano with tenor interjections. This is interesting symmetry as we have both surviving children of two Tsars at their paternal tomb at the same moment. We are rudely interrupted by a tuneful chorus of drunk Polish soldiers from above. Upon hearing the voices she realizes that she has no friend to protect her should the Poles investigate. Dimitri realizes that he shares a great deal with this girl, they are both lonely and friendless. The Polish chorus pops in again.
29: Two Polish soldiers, Neborsky and Buchinsky, attempt to sexually assault Xenia *. Dimitri rescues her, Xenia believing that her father’s spirit has been send by the Almighty to protect her.
32: The first Xenia-Dimitri duet ***. At first she has no words wonderful enough to express her thankfulness (but the orchestra sure does!). Dimitri brings in the love motif but then Xenia soars on a cloud of strings. It is slightly more fragmentary than earlier numbers and takes a little bit to warm up but when it does, you will know. He tells her that her presence has given him happiness, she pleads with him to stop saying such things to her in a holy place. She admits, however, that his words are tempting to her, which prompts him to become excited and her to leave, but not before admitting that she has been hiding at the home of Prince Shuisky.
42, 45: The act finale starts with a slightly ornery secret conspirators meeting * in which Shuisky and some Russian men come on and they plot to assassinate Dimitri. He goes over a lot of history about how he remembers the boy’s nurses mourning his death, the present Tsar is an imposter. He tries to get them to swear an oath to defeat Dimitri but Dimitri comes out of the shadows and confronts them to a whirlwind *** as the conspirators are divided between those loyal to Shuisky on one side and those loyal to Dimitri kneeling before him in reverence.
ACT 3: The throne room. (24 minutes)
0, 2: There should be a six minute long aria for Dimitri here in which he contemplates having met Xenia (it is on the album because I own it so I know, but it is tacked on at the end and isn’t included on this video but it is really beautiful, a *** item). Instead we get a triumphal march ** as the court arrives and Basmanov brings news that the Duma has condemned Shuisky to death ***. The Russians beg for mercy, the Poles for blood.
5, 10, 12: Xenia rushes in (as usually) and begs Marina (she hasn’t put two and two together yet that the man she saw in the tombs is the Tsar) to save Shuisky **. Marina is flippant and tells her to ask the Tsar. Xenia kneels before Dimitri, they recognize each other, all heck breaks loose and she faints and is taken away. Dimitri pardons Shuisky and stops the execution, everyone other than the Poles and Marina (who knows now that he pardoned Shuisky only because of Xenia) ***. Marina is enraged and makes this clear, the Poles backing her up in a grand ensemble ***.
14, 21: The next ten minutes consist of a duet between Marina and Dimitri *** in which seem personally attacks him for favouring Xenia. They address the fact that he owes his victory to her money, which is why they married, and then she attacks him with the charge that he is really Gregory Otrepyev, a peasant. He tells her that she is a liar and that she and her father have used him to attain power. She tells him that he is the liar and that she has him in her power. He is desolated and she, either recognizing the situation is falling apart or out of genuine honesty admits that she did not love him when they married *** but now she does and she is willing to sacrifice everything for him, even adopting Russian custom. He doesn’t believe her and orders her to get out of his life. He violently pushes her to the ground and flees the room in disgust. The complete version of this scene is much better.
ACT 4: A courtyard in Shuisky’s house. (28 minutes)
0: Another beautiful entr’acte **.
1: Xenia has gone Ophelia on us and has awaken from a dream in which the icy hand of Death has touched her ***.
3: Dimitri comes on and at first she tries to resist him, but, really how can she? The second Xenia-Dimitri duet is more beautiful than the first ***. But after he kisses her (which acts as a Kundry’s kiss mechanism here) she remembers that her mother and brother were murdered because of him and she tears herself away from him. He tries to dissuade her that his tears and his agony have atoned for the crimes of his followers.
10, 13: It is here that the two versions massively diverge. Marina arrives and confronts the couple in a magnificent trio ***. Marina pleads with Dimitri to return to her, he says good-bye and that he is about to divorce her and marry Xenia immediately. Xenia decides then to become a nun in a furious recitative dialogue with Marina **. The two women recognize each other and come to a mutual understanding of sorts. This is very different from the original version in which Marina hires murderers to kill Xenia, has second thoughts but it is too late and Xenia dies and Dimitri has a mad scene as he cradles the body of the woman he loves in his arms.
16: The chorus comes on and Xenia prepares to take monastic vows before Patriarch Job **.
17, 18: The tonsuring sequence * doesn’t sound anything like the actual Russian Orthodox ceremony but still interesting with lots of leitmotifs (references to love). Dimitri returns with a bridal veil in his hands and is destroyed by Xenia’s decision to become dead to the world ***. The brass instruments exchange on the fate/love motif, Xenia motif returns as well. Stillness. Dimitri rages at Xenia for what she has done when she could have been his Tsarvitsa. It somewhat makes up for the death scene, but the death scene, if you ever hear it, is amazing. Xenia is taken away to the monastery to live out the rest of her days away from the outside world.
22, 26: Marina makes her accusation of Dimitri’s real identity public in revenge and Marfa is called in to identity Dimitri again. What proceeds is considered by some to be the greatest scene in Czech opera *** as Marfa is ordered to swear on the Cross as to Dimitri’s real identity. At first, she is going to save him but he tells her not to lie just in order to spare his life, he does not want the throne by treachery. This prompts Shuisky to assassinate him and the opera ends with the Russians and their religious establishment praying for his soul *** as the curtain falls.
I love this opera unconditionally to the point of being a pushover for it, so instead of critiquing it I’m going to compare it to another certain French work on the same subject:
Although stylistically similar to Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete, comparison to Jonciere’s grand opera on the same subject will prove immediately unflattering to the French work. This partially has to do with the fact that Jonciere was a hack composer (he was actually a music critic who composed on the side) in comparison to Dvorak (a professional composer with expertise in liturgical and symphonic music, both of which come out here), but also the lavender way in which Jonciere’s plot is structured. Dvorak’s Dimitri is a noble figure trying to figure out who he is in a Siegfried-esque sort of way, Jonciere’s is a blockhead by comparison even if he is a honey-toned lyrical tenor, though Dvorak’s Dimitri is actually an even more beautiful tenor lead (I would even make the claim that it is one of the most beautiful tenor roles in all of opera). Most of Jonciere’s opera is set in Poland, and the few Russian characters (apart from Patriarch Iov) are just doormats for Dimitri and so we get none of the historically traumatic angst between the invading Poles and the subjugated Russians (second-year undergrad I wrote a 22-paged paper on the early Times of Troubles from 1598-1613 focusing on the Dimitriads for a Russian history course, I could go on all day about this) that we find here with Dvorak. We also do not have the obnoxious (and unhistorical) figure of Vanda (a fatal sin in Jonciere’s work) and Marina has far more personality here even if she is scheming and eventually murderous than Jonciere’s damsel in distress who is good at traveling lite on cross-country trips, Dvorak’s Marina is also a human being who both loves her husband and is willing to kill her rival for his love. She isn’t Mussorgsky’s scheming Cathoholic witch either. Although Dimitri himself is the dramatic force of the work, the three primary Russian characters: Xenia, Shuisky, and Marfa, are all amazingly well drawn and this permits a rather rare opportunity in opera for the main character to occasionally take a backseat to something that is still part of the main narrative and not in any way padding. Xenia, far more so than the other characters, almost takes over the entire work by the end and a good tenor will be able to bring this out to amazing dramatic effect. Marfa is amazing whenever she is utilized (which is rightly sparing), as is Marina (the only mostly unlikeable character although this is deliberate). Shuisky is an excellent and very sympathetic adversary, although I sort of wish he was more than just a political rival for Dimitri and factored more into the romantic plotting, making a love-quadrangle rather than a triangle. What is more Shuisky is never a bad guy, which is another amazing thing about this opera, there technically are no real bad people. There aren’t any good ones either (except maybe Xenia) but they are just human beings with human desires and flaws. This is what makes this opera so great. Well, that and the fact that it possesses Dvorak’s most dramatic score. For me it can be nothing but an A+ (at least so long as you have the original ending in which Xenia is killed). The alternate ending, although historically more accurate as Xenia outlived even Marina by a decade by becoming a nun (although this was after she had been raped repeatedly for months by False Dimitri I as he waited for Marina to arrive in Moscow, yeah that isn’t a fun historical fact), it is not as dramatically satisfying and makes Marina a little wimpy when you know that in the original version she hires contract killers to murder her rival in cold blood and Xenia’s motivations slightly off-putting. Also, the double-deaths parallel each other dramatically rather well instead of feeling like copy-catting, and Dvorak’s treatment of Dimitri’s mourning for Xenia, like his treatment of both characters generally, is spellbinding. It also provides a more satisfactory wrap up for the three main characters, after all, what happens to Marina in the alternate ended anyway? An A+ from me, although others might say just an alpha.