Dimitrij, which premiered in Prague at the New Czech Theatre on October 8, 1882, was Antonín Dvořák’s most ambitious grand opera. Set to a libretto by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, with a plot derived from Ferdinand Mikovec’s Dimitr Ivanovič – itself based upon Friedrich Schiller’s incomplete Demetrius – the opera was a great popular success.
In the early 1880s, Dvořák was breaking into the international scene with his Moravian duets and Slavonic Dances. Negotiations about the foreign release of his latest comic opera The Cunning Peasant were looking promising, and the composer was looking for a sufficiently ambitious libretto on a universal theme which he could write a serious opera about. He was offered the libretto Dimitrij, written in 1877 by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, daughter of the politician František Ladislav Rieger, and was immediately enthusiastic about it.
He began composing during May 1881, and after a brief interruption in October 1881 to write a string quartet, he completed it in September 1882. When composing the music, Dvořák often consulted the librettist and made a number of adjustments, the most significant of which was the omission of the last act (a traditional grand opera has five acts, but Dimitrij atypically has only four).
The story is based on an episode from Russian history, the short reign of the first pretender to the Russian throne, known as Lydimitri I, a fugitive monk who pretended to be Dimitri, the son of Tsar Ivan IV, and who with the help of the Polish military took control of part of Russia after the death of Tsar Boris Godunov.
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