The Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice certainly does not skimp on its championship of sidelined French Romantic music. Here, in one of its characteristically well-researched, critically balanced and handsomely presented books-cum-CD releases, it offers the first recording of the five-act Dimitri by Victorin Joncières (1839-1903), first performed at the new Théâtre National Lyrique in Paris in May 1876. The opera had no fewer than 47 performances that year and was revived in 1890, but after that it sank back into the ranks of the operatic also-rans. The plot, like that of Dvořák’s Dimitrij (1882), has its origins in Schiller’s incomplete tragedy Demetrius (1857) rather than the Pushkin and Karamzin of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. In a sense, it is rather like being behind the scenes during the Polish act of the revised Boris, with Marina, the false (or is he?) Dimitri and a sprinkling of characters who have no place in Boris acting out a drama of their own. Think Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Joncières had clearly absorbed what he could from Meyerbeer, Weber, Gounod, Verdi and others. Despite Meistersinger-like traits in the overture, any influence from Wagner probably lay more in the use of leitmotif than in dramatic structure: the longest aria in Dimitri (which is, essentially, a number opera) lasts only three minutes. But in total there is over two hours’ music here. It veers alarmingly from one style to another and is punctuated by some truly clunking gear-changes, but it has pace and punch. Within its conventional arioso-aria-chorus framework, Joncières finds a passionate impulse for Marina and Dimitri (or Vasili, as he is known in the first act), and the ensuing love triangle with Vanda (cousin of the King of Poland) adds a touch of pathos and tension. In general Joncières rises vocally to the occasion in the ups and downs of the heated drama, sometimes, as in the Act 3 encounter between Marina and the widow of Ivan the Terrible, with an invigorating thrill. This performance manifestly believes in Dimitri, and the fusion of fine, fervent singing and vivid, pointed orchestral playing lends it precisely the impetus and theatrical presence that, in its day, rendered the opera such a popular success.