> Dvorak Rusalka [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka, op. 114
Milada Šubrtová (Rusalka, soprano), Ivo Žídek (Prince, tenor), Eduard Haken (Watersprite, bass), Maie Ovčačíková (Ježibaba, contralto), Alena Míková (Foreign Princess, mezzo-soprano), Jiří Joran (Gamekeeper, baritone), Ivana Mixová (Turnspit, soprano), Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Zdeněk Chalabala

Recorded from 15.11 to 2.12.1961 at the Domovina Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU 0013-2 612 [2 CDs: 76’54"+71’57"]


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Is there any opera, apart from La Traviata, which sums up so completely in its opening bars as Rusalka everything the opera is about, and also sums up the whole being of its creator and all that we most love him for? (The question is a provocation, send in your lists).

After some distant mutterings in the lower strings there enters a melody that is the very epitome of unfulfilled longing. It seems to have been established by now that the source of this great sense of longing, which pervades so much of Dvořák’s most memorable pages, lay deep in his personal life. It has always been known that in his early youth, rejected in love, he wooed and later married the lady’s younger sister, apparently enjoying a happy domestic existence. It would appear, however, that he remained in love all his life with the original sister. Think of it: chained to a woman he did not love for the sole purpose of catching an occasional glimpse of her sister, unable to rock the domestic boat by ever saying anything. It is not surprising that he identified so deeply with the plight of the poor water-nymph who, having become a human being with all the aspirations and emotions which that involved, is compelled to stay mute.

And could this sense of deep longing be expressed more completely than it is under the baton of Zdenék Chalabala? (Example 1: CD1, track 1).

This was Supraphon’s second recording of Rusalka. The first, in mono, was made in the mid-1950s. Conducted by Jaroslav Krombholc. It had the same Watersprite as here, Eduard Haken, and Benno Blachut, most celebrated of all Czech tenors, as the Prince. The set disappeared from view after the issue of Chalabala’s recording and I have never heard it. Recent compilations dedicated to Blachut and Podvalová have drawn upon it.

The Chalabala set is an old friend, however. I picked it up in strident mono pressings in a W. H. Smith’s sale of deletions in the late 1960s and have been under its spell ever since. It is a pleasure to find that the master tapes have now yielded up sound which is fully acceptable for its age. The acoustic remains dry (listen to the cut-off in the rests after the dramatic fortissimos in the Prelude) so all the more power to Chalabala for getting such magic. The voices are firm and the instrumental detail yields only slightly in comparison with Supraphon’s next effort, the digital recording under Václav Neumann (1982-3). There is occasional distortion in the heavier passages, and the percussion can still be tinny, but the sound need discourage nobody. My initial reaction to the Neumann set, when it came out, was of a certain disappointment; however, in view of the sound of the Chalabala LPs I have tended to turn to it over the years and it is only now that I have permitted myself the luxury of a scene-by-scene comparison. I should also remind readers, however, of the recent award-winning recording on Decca with Fleming and Heppner under Mackerras, a recording which marks, one would hope, Rusalka’s final acceptance as an international opera, not a merely Czech one. The opera has also been recorded under Rahbari for Koch International.

The interesting thing is that, while I have once again marvelled at the poetry Chalabala finds in the score, comparisons have led me to appreciate better Neumann’s approach. Chalabala takes us into the world of the fairy-tale. As I pointed out not long ago when discussing his and Talich’s versions of the Symphonic Poems, he is maybe less strong on symphonic construction but knows how to tell a story. Neumann was a paradoxical case of a Czech conductor whose Dvořák symphonies raised little enthusiasm (but remember he started his career with thrilling versions of nos. 1, 2 and 4 with the Prague Symphony Orchestra) but whose Mahler enjoyed cult status. He seems to wish to go beyond the fairy-tale in the search of something more real; a dark allegory of good forces against bad. At the outset the dark rumblings are more present than with Chalabala, the Rusalka theme itself more muted. He continually underlines, during this prelude, the sinister colours of the music.

This approach continues in the first scene, where the dryads cavort around, mocking the Watersprite, and at this point you realise that the older recording is not going to have everything its way if only because Chalabala’s dryads are real wobblers in the old Slavonic tradition; Neumann’s will be easier on western ears. As for interpretation, with Chalabala we get a good-natured romp (wonderful vitality) while Neumann again seeks out details which can be taken as sinister premonitions.

The two Watersprites are each aligned to their conductors’ approaches. For Neumann, Richard Novák is a tough, sinister figure while Eduard Haken, for Chalabala, smoother voiced, is a loveable, avuncular old chap. Chalabala’s dryads tease him with affection, leaving him to exclaim "Mládi, mládi" ("Youth, youth") with the tolerant air of one who has seen it all, while Neumann’s dryads keep their distance. When Rusalka admits she wants to become a mortal Novák would hurl fire and brimstone at her while Haken seems horror-struck and very much saddened. The Watersprite’s repeated cries of "Ubohá Rusalka bledá ("Poor pallid Rusalka") are launched by Novák as maledictions while Haken sounds to be sincerely sorry at the plight the silly little thing has got herself into. You could justify either view, but Novák’s pantomime-devil of a Watersprite is more one-dimensional and risks being tiresome, while Haken’s more human figure can be touching.

Now we come to the arrival of Rusalka herself. The first thing to be said is that Rusalka may be a pallid water-nymph but in vocal terms the part needs real heft. The singer who hasn’t got Turandot in her vocal chords and lungs is not going to go all the way. Rusalka’s first moments frequently blossom into full arioso, as in the powerful passage ("Sám vyprávĕls …) where she tells how she has heard that humans "have souls of which we are deprived, /And that to heaven rise these human souls /When men do die and vanish from the earth!"). Šubrtová has the vocal splendour to encompass this with real passion; Beňačková, attractive as her timbre is, seems to be pushing beyond her limits. So take the wonderful little aria “Sem často přichnázi” (example 2: CD 1, track 4) in which Rusalka describes how the man she loves often comes to the pool to bathe, she takes him into her arms but he does not know, for to him she is only a wave. But she wants to be able to take her into his arms and embrace her as she embraces him. Here Rusalka expresses all her burgeoning desire to become a human, all her growing human emotions. This is the first piece of sustained lyrical writing in the opera and the singer who can wrap herself around the hearts of her public here can do little wrong thereafter. Šubrtová, with Chalabala’s loving support, is overwhelming; Beňačková does her best, and Neumann’s faster tempo may have been chosen to help her out in the longer lines.

But wait a moment, wasn’t Gabriela Beňačková-Čápová’s Rusalka (to give her her full name for once) a revelation at the time, a much-loved assumption which travelled to Vienna and New York? I think the attractiveness of her timbre captivated many (myself included) and the sense that she was pushing herself beyond her limits was felt to portray the fragility of Rusalkà. This is certainly true, but to portray human fragility with vocal fragility is dangerous – it would be like having Violetta cough all the time – and unfortunately the premises for the dismal decline documented by her 1995 Prague recital (SU 3027-2 231) are all to be heard here. A pity nobody noticed or something might have been done. By the time of her 1993 Metropolitan performance the voice had darkened considerably; later revivals at the Met paved the way for Renée Fleming’s assumption of the role. All this can be heard again at greater length by comparing Beňačková and Šubrtová in the opera’s most famous aria, Rusalka’s song to the moon.

The next character to enter is the witch, Ježibaba. This time the Neumann set has a distinct advantage in Vĕra Soukupová, beside whose pinging delivery Marie Ovčačíková sounds old and jaded. The only problem is that, in line with Neumann’s interpretation, she rather goes overboard in characterising her aria and the less exaggerated approach under Chalabala is, in principle, preferable. Incidentally I should like to know why, in the opening phrase of this piece, “Čury mury fuk” (“Abracadabra”), Ovčačíková leaps up an octave while Soukupová remains on the same note. Was this an unwritten tradition that Neumann decided to expunge?

The dawn-music in the orchestra is poetically handled by both conductors and both sets can boast an off-stage hunter who is badly out of tune. So we come to the remaining leading character, the prince. Ivo Žídek’s timbre sounded terribly pinched in the old LP pressings so it’s good to hear now that he sings in a generous, ardent and fairly full-toned manner, with an occasional tendency to go flat. I should very much like to hear Blachut’s assumption in the Krombholc set – the Prince concludes Act 1 with two glorious arias – but Žídek is certainly preferable to Neumann’s Wieslaw Ochman. This appears to be a small voice in any case, since it is closer-miked than the others, with the orchestra receding further behind. A certain reined-in quality enters Neumann’s conducting when Ochman is around. The timbre is not unpleasant but there is a virtually complete absence of legato, rendering the effect unmusical indeed. At just a couple of key moments, such as the beginning of the second verse of his first aria, he does produce rather more line (under particular pressure from the conductor?) but overall this is a real disappointment. Whether it stems from a technical inability to sing legato or (perhaps more likely) from unfamiliarity with the Czech language I cannot say.

The Second Act opens with a scene between the gamekeeper and the turnspit of the Prince’s castle. This brief moment of peasant comedy might seem superfluous, but it allows us to know that there is general unease over the strange young creature the Prince has also brought in from the woods, and also rumours that he is already tiring of her (though the marriage preparations are going ahead) in favour of a foreign Princess who is visiting the castle. Dvořák is almost recklessly prodigal of charming music to be lavished on minor characters and the Gamekeeper even gets a rather impressive little aria, "U nás v lesich straši" (My forest is haunted). These suggestions of darker powers and impending tragedy are particularly well realised by Neumann while Chalabala is content to keep things dancing along. The gamekeepers are equally effective but there is a big difference of approaches between the two turnspits. This is a breeches role and some people feel (I don’t) that these should be sung in a shrill, boyish voice. This is how Neumann’s Jiřina Marková sings it and frankly I find it tiresome. For Chalabala Ivana Mixová sings in a “normal” voice, which I prefer.

The Prince now appears and reveals that he is still deeply in love with Rusalka but distressed at her frigidity and his inability to possess her. The two tenors confirm what we already know, but Neumann does draw the best out of Ochman, carrying him along on a seething orchestral backdrop. At this point the foreign Princess appears, a scheming, venomous character. I suppose Dvořák felt that he should contrast her with the soprano Rusalka by making her a mezzo, but having written the label he forgot to write in the mezzo range and Alena Míková’s squally, forced performance has you thinking the role should be handed over to a real soprano. However, on the Neumann set Drohomíra Drobková is quite superb, a real mezzo timbre wholly in command of the highish tessitura. This scene, in which Ochman is again carried along by Neumann’s urgent, passionate conducting, is altogether more effective than under Chalabala.

The orchestral polonaise which follows as the guests go into the castle was often performed by Neumann as a concert piece and he conducts it as a much loved personal favourite, inquiring into its curious transformations of the principal leitmotivs with a lot of point. Chalabala by contrast seems not especially interested and even a touch lethargic. The Watersprite now emerges from a convenient pond, a potentially comic moment redeemed by the beauty of his aria. Neumann’s Richard Novák has decided that this is the moment to invest the role with a humanity similar to Haken’s. I really can’t choose between them, but I do prefer Neumann’s less extreme change of tempo for the orchestral music at the end of each verse.

Rusalka, desperate, rushes to the Watersprite’s arms and suddenly regains her speech. We immediately see again what a big role this is. Her interjection beginning “Tatičku, vodníku” may not be long but its cries of “Bĕda! Bĕda!” and even more that of “Rusalku prostovlasou!” require enormous lung power and are encompassed by Šubrtová with an ease that leaves Beňačková standing at the post. The following desperate, headlong aria finds even Šubrtová strained so what are the chances for Beňačková? Here Neumann shows quite extraordinary perception and guile. By holding the orchestra down dynamically and adopting a faster tempo which gains in urgency what it loses in force, he allows her to resolve the piece by agility rather than heft. The result is completely successful – a clear win over Chalabala.

In the final scene of this act, Dvořák’s psychological perception in making the Prince declare his love to the Princess to a variant of the music with which he originally fell in love with Rusalka is to be noted – the Prince may fancy the Princess for a moment but he is really in thrall to Rusalka. Once again Drobková’s superior vocality and Neumann’s urgent conducting more than compensate for Ochman’s weaknesses. If Act One was clearly preferable under Chalabala, in Act Two the advantages are almost entirely the other way, and this is in line with Neumann’s interpretation which stresses the odds piling up against Rusalka, sinister natural forces at first but now the Princess as well.

Act Three begins with Rusalka, forlorn and abandoned by the lake, singing an aria of melancholy beauty. We are back in the magic world in which Chalabala excels, but this is not an aria which calls for massive heft and Beňačková is heard at her best; furthermore, Neumann supports her wonderfully, as if sustaining her in the lapping waters. In fact, in this act Neumann’s vision of Rusalka as a fragile creature overwhelmed by the forces pitted against her comes into its own.

In the following scene with Ježibaba the superiority of Soukupová is striking, the more so since she does not adopt a caricatural approach. Neumann’s greater urgency carries the scene through and Beňačková is as effective in her way as Šubratová in the powerful passage “Jde z tebe hrůza”.

The brief Nymphs’ chorus documents certain changes for the better in Czech choral singing. More than singing, Chalabala’s crew seem to be indulging in a vibrato competition. With Neumann’s chorus the music takes on a more comprehensible form, and the digital recording manages a more distant perspective (the Nymphs are supposed to be under the water).

Next comes a scene in which the gamekeeper and the turnspit have been sent to Ježibaba to ask for help for the Prince, who is gravely ill, but are sent packing by the Watersprite. This evidently holds little interest for Chalabala since he makes two cuts which prove, when reinstated by Neumann, to have been pointless. Neumann characterises this scene with more care. About his turnspit I have already had my say, but at least she gets to sing an attractive arioso which is reduced by Chalabala to a few bars.

The Dryads’ scene which comes after this finds Dvořák writing bar after bar of the most wonderfully poetic music. I can find little to choose between the two conductors’ interpretations, but the question of vibrato might cause western ears to prefer Neumann.

And so we come to the final dénouement in which the repentant Prince comes to the lake, meets Rusalka once more and begs to kiss her, even though she warns him that her kiss will now kill him. In the end she, too, can resist no more. They embrace and the Prince dies in her arms. The Rusalka theme is transformed into a funeral march before Rusalka’s farewell sets the seal on the opera (Example 3: CD 2, track 11 from 11’ 22"): "Because you loved, because you were good, /Because you were humanly fickle, /Because if all which makes up my fate - /God have mercy on you, human soul".

Chalabala builds up this last scene with growing passion as the couple finally unite in love. For Neumann they are Pelléas and Mélisande-like figures, no less passionate yet also helpless. This scene is deeply moving in both interpretations and each conductor has singers to match his conception.

So, to sum up, with Chalabala this is the story of Rusalka alone, of her desire for human love and passion, of her inability to obtain it and the tragic consequences. The various scenes with the Witch, the Gamekeeper and the Turnspit, not to speak of all the festivities at the castle are, as it were, a pictorial backdrop to Rusalka’s story. For Neumann, Rusalka’s quest is doomed to failure because of all the adverse forces pitted against her. So in his vision, what for Chalabala is a mere backdrop, is raised to the level of a protagonist. If Chalabala may seem incomparable in those very aspects of the opera for which it is most loved, he can give the impression that much else is just agreeable time-filling. (The fact that he died only a couple of months after finishing the recording may have something to do with its valedictory air; was his health already deteriorating?). Under Neumann the opera appears as an integrated whole. It is a more “modern”, perhaps more “Mahlerian” interpretation. Chalabala has a stronger Rusalka but Beňačková comes into her own in the third act. Neumann’s Prince is a weakness but Chalabala’s is not exactly a strength. With equal honours for the Watersprite and certain minor, but important, parts notably superior with Neumann (Ježibaba, the foreign Princess) as well as warmer, more spacious recording (but if it’s state-of-the-art sound you’re after you’ll want Mackerras), the scales would seem to be tipped very slightly in favour of Neumann. Strange. I set about my comparisons convinced I was going to find in Chalabala the stick with which to beat Neumann, but that I would prefer Beňačková’s Rusalka. It has been a salutary experience to have to revise my views so completely. However, the Chalabala does represent an incredible bargain, since it is on two budget price CDs as opposed to three more expensive ones (and to think that originally the Neumann gained because it was on three LPs instead of Chalabala’s four!). Timed at 158’ 00" the Neumann could presumably never be squeezed onto two CDs – it would mean snipping the opera exactly in the middle without regard for the musical sense. And Mackerras, at 162’ 58", is longer still. The Rahbari is on two CDs.

The Chalabala set comes with a good essay in four languages, notes on the performers and, in a second booklet which I didn’t find till I had reached the second CD, is the libretto, also in four languages. The same translation has been doing yeoman’s service for both recordings over the last forty years; it’s a bit stilted (as my examples may have shown) but it’ll do. This is a recording which instilled in me a love for the opera which has so far not died; at this cheap price it will surely do the same for many new listeners.

Christopher Howell

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