Dimitrij Opera in four acts [original 1882 version; sung in Czech]
Dimitrij Ivanovič Stuart Skelton
Marina Mníkova Elena Prokina
Xenie Borisovna Krassimira Stoyanova
Marfa Ivanovna Dagmar Pecková
Prince Vasilij ujský Dalibor Jenis
Jov, Patriarch of Moscow Manfred Hemm
Petr Fedorovič Basmanov Peter Coleman-Wright
Nĕborský Jared Holt
Bucinsky Stanislav Benacka
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The centenary year of Dvořák’s death has brought – in London at least – the expected plethora of ‘New Worlds’ and Cello Concertos, and a healthy quota of the orchestral and chamber works on which his reputation rests, but disappointingly little in the way of those pieces which ought to have merited revival in this year above all. That the London orchestras have not managed to co-ordinate between them a cycle of the symphonies says little for the imagination of their management, and much about their general timidity as regards programming music by even established classical composers.
Not that one could level this criticism at Richard Hickox, who only recently led the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in such a symphonic cycle, and now brings to the Proms the one grand opera of Dvořák ‘s maturity. Composed during 1881-2, Dimitrij dates from the period in his composing (roughly 1879-86) when the influence of Brahms was being amalgamated with Dvořák’s already unmistakable idiom in a series of ambitious works which are among the peaks of mid-Romanticism.
That Dimitrij has not received the plaudits long accorded the orchestral, chamber and even choral works of this period is partly to do with the lavish nature of the medium, partly a question of the Czech language which the composer understandably insisted on – but also the degree to which Dvořák attempted to fuse his operatic and symphonic sensibilities more completely in this work than in any other.
Put another way, Dimitrij’s combining of Verdian dramatic realism with generalised use of Wagnerian leitmotif almost results in a viable synthesis – but not quite. Marie Cervinková-Riegrová’s libretto (derived from earlier sources by Schiller and Mikovec) is largely free from the laboured excesses of its era but – at least in John Tyrrell’s surprisingly low-key translation – is hardly the work of a Boito or Da Ponte. It leaves Dvořák to make the running dramatically as well as musically – with the result that tension is often fitfully maintained, and even the emotional high-points are sometimes undermined by expressive longeurs or uncertainty of placing within the wider dramatic context.
Fortunately the cast assembled for this Proms concert performance was a generally strong one, and not simply through its high incidence of native Czech speakers. I say generally because Stuart Skelton’s assumption of the title role was consistent on its own terms, but failed to project the part with the conviction needed. A lyric tenor with ingratiating naturalness of line but not much expressive weight, he presented Dimitrij as a unwitting ‘fall-guy’: foisted on the Russian people by ambitious Polish nobility and his scheming wife Marina, his warmth and sincerity of manner were much in evidence here – less so his depth and complexity of character. Those passages where Dimitrij engages emotionally with Marina, or with Xenie (the forlorn daughter of Boris Godunov), or with Ivan’s widow Marfa had a lyrical intensity indicating Dvořák knew he was on ‘home ground’ and which probably accounts for the love-duets often verging on the indulgent. Elsewhere, in instances of political intrigue and monologues where Dimitrij’s intensifying predicament is laid bare, Skelton’s expressive input was simply too generalised to portray a figure whose need to preserve his integrity outstrips his desire to rule and, finally, his own survival.
Otherwise, the principal singers are female and there was no doubting the conviction brought to each of the roles. Admittedly Dagmar Pecková had only brief cameos as Marfa until the climactic final scene, when her resonant mezzo powerfully conveyed the crisis of one torn by the competing claims of conscience and country in the recognising of Dimitrij as the missing Tsarevich. As Marina, Elena Prokina was perhaps a shade too elegant to capture a woman of almost cyclothymic mood-swings – willing to humiliate Dimitrij with the revelation of his humble birth, but latterly desperate to secure his love and admiration. Yet in the lengthy duet which closes Act Three, she emerged the clear winner in terms of dramatic conviction and sheer emotional engagement.
Even so, the most affecting portrayal was the Xenie of Krassimira Stoyanova: her purity of expression captured unerringly the chaste persona who sets Dimitrij firmly on the way to his own demise. Her Act Two aria ranks among Dvořák’s most affecting inspirations, while her vocal interplay with Dimitrij in their fateful meeting in Act Four generated an intensity such as earlier confrontations tended to lack.
The smaller roles were well taken – notably the Mussorgskian gravitas of Manfred Hemm’s Jov, the tortured anxiety that Dalibor Jenis brought to Šujský, and the compassionate authority conveyed by the Basmanov of Peter Coleman-Wright. Choral writing is problematic in that crowd scenes have littleof the implacability that Verdi or Mussorgsky would have found in such as the confrontation between Russian and Polish subjects in Act Two, yet the Slovak Philharmonic Choir acquitted itself ably and with real presence – a tribute, no doubt, to the expertise of chorus-master Marián Vach.
Richard Hickox obtained good if not exceptional playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in an opera which – like others he has performed and recorded over the years – he has clearly invested time and effort in reviving. Such passages as the elaborate Act One finale, in which Dimitrij establishes his credentials with an uncertain Moscow populace, had a convincing sense of symphonic follow-through, while those passages in which dance rhythms predominate (including, in Act Two, the appearance of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances recast as a Mazurka!) had a satisfyingly incisive inflection. Moreover, the dramatic tension brought to the brief denouement convinced one that, even though Dvořák was not a dramatic composer to rank with the finest, the depth and sincerity of much of the characterisation here is such as to make Dimitrij worthy of more frequent revival … and certainly well before 2041!