He ruled Russia barely 11 months, was murdered by a mob, then stripped and dragged by his genitals through Moscow. In a final insult, his cremated remains were loaded into a canister and shot in the direction of Poland. Yet Dimitri aka The Pretender has been immortalized by the likes of Pushkin and Schiller, Mussorgsky and Dvořák. A concert performance of the latter’s Dimitrij opened the fourth season of Boston’s intrepid Odyssey Opera, constituting the US première of Milan Pospíšil’s 2004 critical edition of the original 1882 score. Dvořák revisited this opera several times – once quite radically during his 1892-1895 stay in America. Pospíšil includes only the variants from the first edition up to 1885.

Aleš Briscein and Dana Burešová © Kathy Wittman
Aleš Briscein and Dana Burešová
© Kathy Wittman

Subtitled velká opera (grand opéra), Dimitrij aspires to the mix of pomp and personal drama characteristic of Meyerbeer, Halévy and Auber. French grand opéra was the backbone of the repertory of Prague’s Provisional Theater, particularly during Smetana’s 1866-1872 directorship. Dvořák played viola in the theater’s orchestra from its opening in 1862 until 1871, giving him ample opportunity to familiarize himself with the dramaturgy and structure of the genre. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dimitrij’s first act – concise and focussed, artfully balancing pageantry and drama, building to a powerful concertato worthy of Meyerbeer. However, by 1882 Dvořák had not yet mastered consistently maintaining dramatic tension either within acts or over the course of an entire opera as his French idols had done. Some say he never mastered that skill, that his greatest failing was his inability to get to the point or belaboring it once there. Act IV in particular is problematic with climax piling on climax and the denouement grinding out to its conclusion. It is no wonder that many of Dvořák’s subsequent revisions and requests to his librettist focussed on this final act. Still there is much ravishing music in the lush style of his middle symphonies and the Slavonic Dances. Gil Rose and the orchestra reveled in the opportunities Dvořák provides with a muscular, forceful performance, though sometimes too muscular and forceful for the voices to be easily heard.

Marie Červinková-Riegrová’s libretto is based on Ferdinand Mikovec’s Czech play and Schiller’s unfinished Demetrius, both of which cast The Pretender in a much more favorable light than Pushkin. Dimitrij is the son of one of the remorseful assassins who flees to Poland. He gives his child to the noble Mniszech family along with some of the murdered Dimitrij’s personal effects. The boy is raised to believe he is truly Ivan the Terrible’s son and to be a sort of Manchurian Candidate to bring Orthodox Russia into the Catholic fold. To consolidate his control, Dimitrij’s foster father marries him off to his power-hungry niece, Marina.

Červinková-Riegrová’s Dimitrij is noble, idealistic, and eager to rule well and wisely. Only when he falls in love with Godunov’s daughter, Xenie, vows to abandon Marina and keep Russia Orthodox, does his wife reveal his true identity. When Ivan’s widow, Marfa, is forced to swear on the cross Dimitrij is her son, she hesitates. Having falsely acknowledged him in Act I, because he had sworn vengeance on the Godunovs, she now risks her soul. Before she can swear, Dimitrij sacrifices himself and answers for her. Šujskij shoots him.

The engagement of three Czech singers, veterans of Prague’s National Theater, gave Odyssey Opera’s performance an idiomatic flair which would have been otherwise lacking. Aleš Briscein’s tenor is reminiscent in quality and range of the great Beno Blachut – a good thing, since Dimitrij is a long sing flying high in the tenor range. The role requires strength, flexibility, and stamina to meet both the lyrical and heroic demands Dvořák makes of it. Briscein never flagged, never failed.

Olga Jelínková’s Xenie faced similar challenges and met them in similar fashion. Her duets with Briscein were outstanding, but then so was everything else she sang. Her silvery timbre was a dramatic contrast to the darker, brawnier soprano of Dana Burešová as Marina whose singing of Act II’s mazurka drinking song and the close of Act III with Dimitrij were highlights. Irina Mishura’s Marfa was somewhat underpowered but effective while Mark S Doss’s Šujský made the sonorous best of some of the least persuasive vocal writing in the score, with his two solos coming perilously close to patter. James Dermler jumped in to sing the Patriarch a well as Něborský, and successfully created two dramatically and vocally distinct characters. Christopher Job and Seth Grondin sang with equal conviction. Though Dvořák never heard Boris Godunov, his chorus takes on a similar protagonist role. Odyssey Opera’s chorus outdid itself.

 It remains to be seen whether the 1882 version can hold the stage without changes. I have my doubts. But it would only take one persuasive production to prove me wrong.