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Bard SummerScape

In review Bard Dimitrij hdl 817
The cast of Bard SummerScape's production of Dimitrij, with (front row, left to right) Nora Sourouzian, Clay Hilley and Melissa Citro
Photo by Cory Weaver

THIS SEASON, Leon Botstein's summer efforts at Bard focused on Frédéric Chopin. Because the Polish composer had written no operas, the enterprising impresario chose a typically neglected score with a partially Polish theme: Dvořák's historical grand opera Dimitrij (1882, revised 1885 and 1895). Seen on July 30 in Anne Bogart's unspectacular but effective Perestroika-era production Dimitrij proved fascinating and rewarding. The piece—like its many models, including Les Huguenots and Tannhäuser—goes on too long; Marie Cervinková-Riegrová's libretto is no model of dramatic concision and point. Dimitrij picks up the historical action shortly after the death of Boris Godunov in 1605. Four leading characters appear in both operas—the Pretender, the Polish Princess Marina Mnishek, Boris's daughter Xenia and the powerful boyar Prince Shuisky—though they are portrayed quite differently in the Czech libretto than in Mussorgsky’s opera. The Pretender here genuinely (if mistakenly) believes himself to be Ivan the Terrible's long-lost son; Shuisky is a genuine patriot who heroically rescues Xenia from the Polish invaders. The women have roles more multifaceted and developing than in Boris Godunov—and that extends to Marfa, Ivan's widow, multiply called upon to authenticate her “son.”

Musically, Dimitrij betrays little resemblance to Mussorgsky's work, which Dvořák could not have known at the time of Dimitrij’s composition. Dvořák’s score does show that he knew Russian folk themes of the kind he might have heard in Glinka's Ruslan overture or Tchaikovsky's symphonies. In addition, via the anguished prayers of the Russian people, Dvořák skillfully evokes the plaintive sound of a cappella Orthodox chant. In the Bard performance, James Bagwell's chorus sang with admirable ensemble and energy—though Bogart's direction and blocking for them proved more banal and less convincing than her fluid, nuanced work with the principals. David Zinn's unit set, a peeling hall with the Soviet slogan "Victory begins here!,” was tellingly lit by Brian H. Scott.

Dimitrij proved one of Botstein's better podium efforts in Bard's opera history. The string players (harp included) delivered the richness Dvořák intended, and Botstein even allowed his two lead male soloists to utilize soft dynamics for expression and variety. Tenor Clay Hilley has something to learn in terms of varied stagecraft, but he communicated Dimitrij's sincerity and sang the beleaguered leader's difficult, high-lying music with musical skill, emotional investment and attractive tone quality. Hilley's Wagnerian potential extends to clear suitability for several Slavic roles. As the upstanding Shuisky. baritone Levi Hernandez unleashed genuine bel canto phrasing and vocal beauty over a wide dynamic palette. Glamorous spinto soprano Melissa Citro showed tremendous, insightfully modulated dramatic presence as Marina. Past Dvořák's ill-considered hurdle of a cruelly written brindisi, which has coloratura flourishes and two leaps to high B, the music showcased her rich, shining middle register. Growing in vocal security throughout the afternoon, Citro's commanding showing won several ovations. Russia's Olga Tolkmit made a touchingly vulnerable Xenia, her soprano attractively colored though occasionally weak in the lower range. Mezzo Nora Sourouzian—a youthful, soignée Marfa—brought elegance to her phrasing, finessing some challengingly placed high notes. Peixin Chin thundered imposingly as the Patriarch and Joseph Barron showed admirable focus as Basmanov (a veteran of Ivan's secret service).  —David Shengold 

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