Arts opera review

A rare gem: Dvořák’s only grand opera Dimitrij performed in concert

Specializing in the obscure, Odyssey Opera dazzles in its September showcase

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Olga Jelinkova as 'Xenie' in Dimitrij.
Kathy Wittman


Performed by Odyssey Opera

Written by Antonín Dvořák

NEC’s Jordan Hall

September 16, 2016

Grand opera is not for the faint of heart. Telling a sweeping tale of the struggle for the throne in tsarist Russia, Dimitrij clocks in at nearly four hours across four acts. This rare opera, chosen and conducted by artistic director Gil Rose of Odyssey Opera, is epic, luscious, and riveting to the last note. It truly lives up to its genre.

A one-night performance, Dimitrij is the perfect fare for a company as unique and talented as Odyssey. Every second week of September, the fledgling company selects a rarely-performed opera as a one-time engagement — in just four years, Odyssey has garnered well-deserved critical acclaim for its creative efforts.

Dimitrij would have been difficult to fully stage given its requirement for a massive cast, but this performance took a much simpler route. With the singers standing at the edge of the stage and backed by the orchestra and the chorus behind them, no sets or costumes were required. But that didn’t diminish the effect of the plot. The story is incredible, and I found myself enjoying the process of reconstructing the visuals in my mind as I was dazzled by the sounds.

Almost entirely grounded in truth, the opera picks up the story of the struggle for the throne after Tsar Boris Godunov’s death in 1605. Godunov’s son and widow have been murdered, leaving his daughter Xenie an orphan. Another man lays claim to the throne, asserting he is Dimitrij, son of Godunov’s predecessor, Ivan the Terrible.

When Marfa, Ivan’s widow, claims to recognize him as her son out of admiration for his character, Dimitrij ascends to the throne, much to the anger of his enemies. The story comes to a head when Dimitrij, alienated from his power-hungry wife Marina, falls in love with Xenie — but Marina reveals to him his true lowly origins and has Xenie murdered.

Dimitrij, torn apart by the double loss, refuses to allow Marfa to come to his defense, succumbing to a bullet at the hands of his enemy, Prince Šujskij (Mark Doss).

During the intermission, I spoke to one of the members of the chorus who had retreated into a reception area. She was seated, jotting notes in her music, as I approached her and struck up conversation. I discovered she had been chaplain of MIT for fifteen years, and she described how all the chorus members were volunteers participating simply for their love of opera — she had been practicing for three weeks to prepare for this one.

According to her, Odyssey had acquired Czech opera singers for the sole purpose of this performance — and the opera was so obscure that they had not even heard of it.

Czech tenor Aleš Briscein sung the part of Dimitrij. His voice was alluring and clarion — a stark contrast from the sonorous and rumbling sounds of the other male singers, all bass-baritones.

Olga Jelínková was hauntingly good in the part of the frail and tortured Xenie. In the second act, as Dimitrij encounters her in a graveyard, they have a beautiful duet — he professes his love for her, and she, not knowing who she’s speaking to, shuns him in her sorrow.

Marina, sung by Dana Burešová, was the most elaborately dressed. In a flowing cape gown, she exemplified haughtiness and regality, in contrast to her competitor, Xenie.

The opera was further bolstered by an excellent orchestra and chorus. Much of the score was forte, and the impressive acoustics in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall made every note distinct and powerful. The cozy concert hall is a treat in and of itself; I would go back for any performance for the acoustic experience.