Dimitrij, Op. 64, B127, B186
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
original version: 8 May 1881 – 23 September 1882
revised version: summer 1883 (additional revision 1885)
second revision: 9 April – 31 July 1894 (additional revision January 1895 (?))
Premiere - date and place
original version: 8 October 1882, Prague
revised version: 20 November 1883, Prague
second revision: 7 November 1894, Prague
original version: Václav Soukup (Dimitrij), Eleonora z Ehrenbergů (Marfa), Marie Sittová (Marina), Irma Reichová (Xenie), František Hynek (Basmanov), Josef Lev (Shuisky), Ferdinand Koubek (Patriarch), J. Christl (Neborsky), Václav Mikoláš (Lipsky), Provisional Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Mořic Anger, director František Kolár
revised version: Carlo Raverta (Dimitrij), Eleonora z Ehrenbergů (Marfa), Marie Sittová (Marina), Irma Reichová (Xenie), František Hynek (Basmanov), Leopold Stropnický (Shuisky), Ferdinand Koubek (Patriarch), J. Christl (Neborsky), Bohumil Benoni (Lipsky), National Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Mořic Anger, director František Kolár
second revision: Vladimír Florjanski (Dimitrij), Růžena Vykoukalová (Marfa), Růžena Maturová (Marina), Anna Veselá (Xenie), František Hynek (Basmanov), Václav Viktorin (Shuisky), Václav Kliment (Patriarch), František Šír (Neborsky), K. Pulc (Buchinsky), National Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Mořic Anger, director František Kolár
not published yet
Author of the libretto
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets (+ 2 clarinets ad libitum), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (+ 2 trumpets on the stage), 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, 2 harps, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: Square in Front of the Kremlin in Moscow
2nd act: A Hall in the Kremlin
3rd act: Another Hall in Kremlin
4th act: Courtyard of Shujski's House
Dimitrij, assumed son of Ivan the Terrible – tenor
Marfa, widow of Ivan the Terrible – contralto
Marina, Dimitrij's wife – soprano
Xenie, daughter of the tsar Boris Godunov – soprano
Basmanov, commander of the tsar's armies – bass
Shuisky, prince – baritone
Jov, the patriarch of Moscow – bass
Neborsky, member of the Polish company – tenor
Lipsky, member of the Polish company – baritone
Buchinsky, member of the Polish company – baritone
the people of Moscow, priests, Polish company, soldiery
depending on the version approx. 2,45 – 3,15 hr.
None of Dvořák’s operas went through such a complex and protracted genesis as Dimitrij. The first sketches and the last revisions were separated by a period of thirteen years, during which the composer made a number of changes, from minor revisions to fundamental interventions into the very fabric of the work. Dvořák was offered the libretto, written by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, at the end of 1880 through the mediation of the director of Prague’s Provisional Theatre, Jan Nepomuk Maýr. The composer was delighted to receive it, for several reasons: encouraged by the success of his previous opera The Cunning Peasant, which had also broken out onto foreign stage venues, Dvořák now had in mind to create a major opera with an “international” story which would further this success and reinforce his position as a dramatic author. Another reason was the planned opening of the Czech National Theatre in Prague and the hope that he would be able to stage an opera at this new, prestigious venue. Dvořák’s decision to use this libretto was also influenced to a large extent by its Slav subject matter, which not only conformed to his own personal creed, but also to that of the majority of Czech patriotic society at the time.
The libretto was not originally written for Dvořák. Its author Marie Červinková-Riegrová wrote it in the years 1878–1880 for Karel Šebor, who had shortly before set to music her previous libretto, The Frustrated Wedding. Červinková was not happy with the setting, however, and so she decided to offer Dimitrij to Dvořák. Her decision would certainly have been influenced by her father, a leading Czech politician of his day, František Ladislav Rieger, who not only was highly active on the political scene, but he also had great insight and authority in cultural circles as well. The story for the libretto is an actual historical event which unfolded in Russia at the beginning of the 17th century: Provincial nobleman Yuri Otrepyev managed to fool the Polish aristocracy and King Sigismund III into thinking that Dimitrij was the son of the former Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, and he thus had an entitlement to the Russian throne. With the aid of Sigismund’s army, Dimitrij forced Tsar Boris Godunov to abdicate and murdered his heirs. But he only remained on the throne for a year – in May 1606 he was assassinated by conspirators headed by the future Tsar Vassily Shuisky. This story, used on several occasions previously (Schiller, Pushkin, Mussorgsky), served Červinková for what was originally a five-act libretto, in which she preserved all the main aspects of the historical episode whilst successfully combining both political and human issues. The chief difference between the libretto and the real events is the motivation of the titular character: here, Dimitrij is not a cunning imposter; until Act Three he lives with the conviction that he really is the son of Ivan the Terrible, which allows the audience to build up an image of a positive hero and subsequently identify with his tragic end.
Dimitrij is Dvořák’s most solemn work of the Meyerbeer-esque type of grand opera which, in the context of the Czech musical environment at the time of writing, was more of an encumbrance for him at that point in his career. The composer conceived his opera as an epic historical tableau unfolding in a spirit of solemn pathos and monumentality. The work was therefore not compatible with the contemporary requirement for a “simple, national style”, nor was it sufficiently modern in a Wagnerian sense. Today we regard Dimitrij in all its versions as an important example of Dvořák’s mature compositional mastery and it is also unquestionably one of the most significant works produced for the Czech operatic stage of the post-Smetana era. It boasts a wealth of melodic ideas, a wonderful evocation of local and period atmosphere in the extensive choral scenes, and remarkable instrumentation. Despite certain conceptual deviations in the individual versions and revisions, in the right hands, the work promises a highly effective stage production, particularly due to the timeless subject matter, based on real historical events; unlike comic rural themes, whose naivety can be barely acceptable for today’s audiences, the work facilitates a “serious” reception of the story.
After consultations with dramatist František Věnceslav Jeřábek and music critic Václav Vladimír Zelený, during the first few months of 1881, the composer requested initial revisions to the text. In May 1881 he began writing the sketch, which he completed in the autumn of that year. In the intervening time, however, the recently finished National Theatre burned down on 12 August 1881 and Dvořák’s hopes of presenting his opera at the new venue were dashed. The libretto originally had five acts; the last of these was to portray Xenie’s burial, during which the feud between the Russians and the Poles would reignite. Yet Dvořák realised that the opera was now too long, and thus, together with the librettist, he decided to shorten the libretto and end the opera with the death of Dimitrij. After he had completed his sketches, Dvořák embarked upon the score itself in December 1881, which he finished in August of the following year. During this period he was in constant contact with the librettist, either in person or in writing, requiring numerous changes to the text, the addition of more verses, and details regarding specific action on stage.
premiere of the original version
At the time Dvořák was working on the score, it was clear that the National Theatre, destroyed by fire, would not be restored for some time, and so it was decided that the premiere of Dimitrij would be held in the New Czech Theatre. (This theatre venue, which used to be somewhere in the vicinity of what is now the corner of Anglická and Škrétova streets in Prague, was the Provisional Theatre’s summer venue and, due to its size, was much better suited for staging grand-scale productions.) The preparations for the premiere were marred by complications right from the start. It was initially already scheduled for the end of the 1881/1882 season, and was then moved to September. At the same time as Dimitrij, the management of the Provisional Theatre also decided to put on Bedřich Smetana’s new opera The Devil’s Wall, with a premiere planned for the end of August. Dvořák was afraid that, if Dimitrij’s premiere were moved to a later date, it would not be possible to perform the opera at all in that particular season, since the wooden construction of the New Czech Theatre could only be used in the warmer half of the year. As it turned out, however, the stage sets for Smetana’s opera were not ready in time, thus Dimitrij was ultimately the first in line.
The production was also adversely affected by a tragic event for the family of tenor Antonín Vávra, who had rehearsed the title role. A week before the premiere, his wife died in Paris and the role of Dimitrij had to be quickly re-cast. The part was given to another soloist at the Provisional Theatre, Václav Soukup, and the premiere had to be moved back yet again, with a definitive date of 8 October 1882. Dvořák’s music was extremely well received at the premiere, as were the performances of the lead singers. Moreover, the production was ultimately one of the most costly for its time, even though the press questioned the historical authenticity of the costumes. The premiere was also attended by Dvořák’s Berlin publisher, Fritz Simrock, and influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick.
Eduard Hanslick’s long article in Neue Freie Presse from 17 October 1882 was full of praise for Dvořák’s music: “The opera contains strong, dramatic moments, so much beautiful and original music; this is the work of a truly noteworthy talent. [...] The choruses emanate a prevailing spirit of Polish and Russian music, which is wholly appropriate here. The music has an essentially Slav character which is entirely natural, and not contrived in any way.” However, the critic also expressed his doubts over certain attributes of the libretto. He was particularly concerned about the scene of Xenie’s murder, which he deemed too drastic, and flawed in terms of psychological motivation.
excerpt from Marie Červinková-Riegrová’s diary:
“The theatre was packed out, it was very hot in there (proceeds that day 1,200 gulden). On the other side on the first floor, sitting in a box, were Hanslick, Simrock, Hock, Barnabáš, in another box the Dvořák family. The staging of the piece was more than wonderful, and the performance was a success. [...] There was tremendous applause after Act One, Dvořák had to take a bow several times. When people started to clap after the first change of scene for Act Two, others hissed at them to stop – they did not want any disturbance, the music was still playing. But at the end of Act Two, the applause was deafening, and people kept on cheering for Dvořák after every act. […] The audience was keen to stay right till the end, and it went on until 11pm.”
Dvořák knew that, in order for Dimitrij to succeed on the German stage, it was vital to receive positive reviews from Eduard Hanslick, thus he asked Červinková to rework the libretto, taking into account his criticism of the text. The librettist, who had meanwhile turned her attention to The Jacobin and had now adopted a completely different train of thought, was reluctant to return to a task she considered finished, and she continually postponed the revisions Dvořák had asked of her. She finally handed over the revised libretto to the composer on 22 April 1883, six months after the premiere. Changes were made only to Act Four: Xenie, who was killed in the original version of the libretto, now decides to enter a convent and Marina abandons her plan to assassinate her. Dvořák spent the month of July 1883 modifying Act Four to reflect the new section of the libretto. Apart from the passages that had to be re-written to accommodate the new text, he also shortened the overture considerably. Two years later, when the new version of the opera was already part of the National Theatre’s repertoire, Dvořák also wrote an entirely new orchestral introduction to Act Two.
premiere of the revised version
The revised Dimitrij was performed for the first time on 20 November 1883 at one of the gala evenings held to mark the re-opening of the National Theatre, and it played there almost continually until 1892 (with a total of fifty repeat performances). The success of this new version of the opera as well gave Dvořák all the more reason to attempt to stage the work abroad, thus it wasn’t long before he commissioned a German translation of the libretto. František Ladislav Rieger also pushed to have Dimitrij presented on the international scene, specifically in Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Moscow and St Petersburg, as did Dvořák’s admirer, leading conductor of his day, Hans von Bülow, who tried to promote the work in Hamburg. London also expressed an interest in the opera. However, none of the anticipated productions went ahead in the end; Eduard Hanslick even had to inform Dvořák that an endorsement of Dimitrij in Vienna was impossible for political reasons.
After repeated criticism that the opera lacked sufficient dramatic impact, Dvořák decided in 1894, during his sojourn in the United States, that he would embark upon another fundamental revision of the work. His chief aim was to shorten several lengthy musical passages which, according to the critics, affected the plot’s momentum, and to revise the vocal parts in order to ensure the kind of declamatory style found in Wagner. He worked steadily on the revision from April to July, roughly four months, during which a major part of the score underwent a radical transformation. The composer described his progress in a letter to his friend Alois Göbl: “Dimitrij is coming along fine. I am glad that I’m finding it easy, but it is a grim process – a good half of it, if not more, will be completely new. I always think that it’s fine as it is, but then I find myself tearing out the old music and writing it afresh.” It would seem, however, that the incursions into the score – even though conscientiously considered – did more damage than good, a fact Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek aptly expressed in the following statement: “Dvořák’s new adjustments may have succeeded in heightening the dramatic effect of his ‘Dimitrij’ yet, on the other hand, his score has been deprived in many places of beautiful music which had previously contributed to the work’s success. Here, Dvořák has performed an act of admirable self-denial and artistic discipline, nevertheless, in doing so, he has violated the true essence of his creative individuality.”
premiere of the second revision
The second reworking of Dimitrij was premiered at the National Theatre on 7 November 1894. On this occasion Dvořák did not attend the event since he had only recently begun his last year at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. This revamped version did not enjoy the success of his two previous efforts and it was only performed fifteen times, for the last time on 19 September 1901, not quite three years before the composer’s death.
In 1906 conductor Karel Kovařovic decided to bring Dimitrij back to the stage. First he subjected all the versions of the opera to a thorough comparative study, based on which he opted for a return to the first version, where he made several cuts. He then added various passages from later revisions, and he also modified the declamation and instrumentation. This “Kovařovic” rendering is the version used for the majority of productions to date. The National Theatre favoured this particular version, with brief intervals, for several decades. The only longer break occurred during the years 1950–1963, when Zdeněk Nejedlý, leading representative of the Communist government at the time, banned Dimitrij from the National Theatre. It wasn’t until after his death that the opera was able to return to the stage, and this in a production by Bohumil Gregor which remained in the repertoire until 1966. The opera never returned to the National Theatre after that, and its resurgence in Prague is due to the Prague State Opera, which performed Dimitrij in 2004 to mark the anniversary of the composer’s death. Outside the capital productions have been held in Plzeň (1904, 1923, 1925, 1964), Ostrava (1921, 1966 and 1997), Olomouc (1925, 1954) and in Brno (1904, 1926, 1940, 1949, 1972, 1990). If we disregard the National Theatre Opera’s tour to Vienna in 1892, the only proper stagings of this opera abroad appear to be as follows: a British production by the Nottingham University Opera Group in 1979 and a Fisher Center – Bard College production (Annandale on Hudson, New York) in 2017. The Collegiate Chorale (New York) presented concert performance of the opera in 1984, Oregon Bach Festival presented concert performance of the opera in 1991. During Dvořák’s anniversary year in 2004 a concert performance was held in Vienna; the concert was repeated at the London Proms with the same line-up a few months later. Odyssey Opera Boston presented concert performance of the opera in 2016. In 1981 Czechoslovak Television recorded a greatly abbreviated version of the opera as a television production.
the story is set in Moscow in 1604
After the death of Tsar Boris Godunov, Russia is gripped by uncertainty – who will assume the throne? Boris’s children Fyodor and Xenie, or the one who proclaims himself as Dimitrij, the son of Boris’s predecessor, Ivan the Terrible? The majority take the side of the alleged Dimitrij, under the condition that Ivan’s widow, the tsarina Marfa, recognises him as her son. Dimitrij travels to Moscow with his wife, the Polish woman Marina, and her entourage. Even though Marfa knows that Dimitrij is not who he claims to be, in her desire to avenge her dead son, she publicly recognises him, thus ensuring his ascent to the throne.
Preparations for the coronation of Dimitrij and his wife Marina are being made in the Kremlin. Dimitrij wants Marina to become a Russian, both in her appearance and in her heart, but Marina, in turn, tells Dimitrij that he must adopt her customs. Their dispute gains momentum, a group of Russian and Polish noblemen prepare to fight each other, and the skirmish is only prevented by Dimitrij, who threatens punishment for anyone who disturbs the peace. Dimitrij seeks the solitude of the cemetery where Tsars Ivan and Boris are buried. Here he encounters Xenie, who is being hounded by the Polish nobility. Dimitrij saves Xenie from their assault on her, without betraying to her who he is. When Xenie has gone, Dimitrij hears voices and hides himself in the tomb, from where he hears Shuisky inciting conspirators against him. Dimitrij calls the tsarist guard and has him arrested.
Back in the Kremlin, Dimitrij keeps thinking of Xenie; he no longer loves Marina. The latter soon realises this and, fearing that she and the Poles will lose their influence in Russia, she reveals his humble origins. Her uncle had allegedly once taken the child of a Russian fugitive serf into his care and, convinced he was the tsar’s successor, had brought him up intending to use him to gain future control of Russia. Dimitrij is shaken by the knowledge that he is not the person he thought he was, and that Marina only pretended to love him; it was power she craved.
In Shuisky’s house Xenie laments her love for a person who laid claim to the tsarist throne through dishonest means. She still loves him, but she is convinced that she must renounce Dimitrij and decides to enter a convent (at this point, Xenie is murdered by Marina in the original version). Marina publicly exposes Dimitrij as an imposter and the people again force Marfa to swear that he is her son. After much hesitation, she consents. Before she can say another word, Dimitrij stops her himself and confesses that he is not her son, and he is then shot by Shuisky.