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A Stunning Success at Bard

Opera review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 31st, 2017

Joseph Barron, Melissa Citro, Clay Hilley, Olga Tolkmit, Leon Botstein, Nora Sourouzian

We live in ambiguous times, fraught with propaganda, confusion, and conspiracy. Charting a number of remarkable parallels with our current historical plight, Antonín Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij (1882) at Bard’s Fisher Center travels back to 17th century Russia to uphold a mirror of paranoia to our eyes. And what a mirror! It’s hard to believe that we now have the first fully staged production in the United States of this Dvořák masterpiece. How could this have happened? Is it just that Americans were not much interested in Slavic opera? Not interested in a great choral masterpiece?

Dimitrij offers a sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, picking up the plot after Tsar Godunov dies, wherein Poland seeks to plant an ignorant, emotional peasant Pretender on Russia’s throne. Sound familiar? The similarities to our current predicament exfoliate and echo. Sung in Czech, the chorus whorls into your inner ear under the direction of James Bagwell. Some choral songs achieve such climactic high notes and piercing emotion one feels the notes vibrating inside your cranium.

The libretto by Marie Cervinková-Riegrová is a melodramatic baroque marvel of twisting turns and carnival mirrors. The first two acts delve into politics, while the latter two plunge politics into tortured romance and scorching irony. Clay Hilley as Dimitrij veers from naïf to plotter to remorseful honest pathos with believability accompanied by resounding bass voice. Melissa Citro as Marina rises to a comic tour-de-force in the third act while Olga Tolkmit as Xenia achieves distraught ambivalence between her physical attraction to Dimitrij despite her family history and loyalty. Nora Sououzian as Marfa delivers a stunning solo in the third act.

While men dominate the first two acts, women have all the choice songs of the last two acts. One suspends disbelief at the expert reversals; and one realizes the horror of their relevancy to today. What had been previously thought to be irrelevant to our history as a nation is now assured of terrible relevancy. In a sense, we are now living varied aspects of this tragic opera.   

Leon Botstein ably directs the American Symphony Orchestra, which plays note-perfect with deep emotion. This original production by Bard is flawlessly directed by Anne Bogart. David Zinn’s set design is functional yet bland, except for the windows. Costume design by Constance Hoffman raises questions about anachronisms that diminish pageant and spectacle, but remain sensible and accessible (employing flashlights instead of dangerous candles and guns instead of bloody swords, although I would argue there’s no need for the odd machine gun).

Yet there is enough catharsis and wonderment at song that all is transcended and transformed by the unity of orchestra and chorus amid forceful acting. Power becomes romance; romance utters its own tragic descent into madness, pathos, and repentance.

This production is so stunning one might be forgiven for thinking that one sat at the Metropolitan Opera; it should have long legs and long runs in cities like Washington D.C., Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and wherever good opera might wander. This opera is long at slightly over four hours and two intermissions; the pacing is slow by contemporary standards, yet supplies worthwhile and exciting contemplation.

The current not-to-be-missed production runs one more weekend until August 6. Tickets, starting at $25, can be had by calling 845-758-7900 or going on line at fishercenter@bard.edu. Parking is free. Whatever you pay for admission, you will be rewarded tenfold.