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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka - opera in three Acts (sung in German) (1900)
Rusalka, Elfride Trotschel (sop); Prince, Helmut Schindler (ten); Princess, Ruth Lange (m.sop); Vodnik, Gottlob Frick (bass); Jezibaba, Helena Rott (m.sop); Kitchen boy, Lisa Otto (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Staatskapelle, Dresden/Joseph Keilberth
Recorded Radiosender Dresden, December 1948
RELIEF CR 1903 [2CDs: 52.11+71.39]

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Before Charles Mackerras’s promotion of Janáček’s operas, it would not be far from the truth to postulate that Czech opera was known outside that country only by Smetana’s Bartered Bride and Dvořák’s Rusalka. The latter was the ninth of Dvořák’s ten operas and the only one to establish itself outside his own country. It tells the story of the eponymous Water Nymph who craves human form and pleads with her father, Vodnick the Water goblin, to tell her the means. The witch Jezibaba grants the transformation into a beautiful, but mute, woman. In this form Rusalka entrances a Prince who, in turn, comes to prefer, at their wedding feast, a more articulate Princess. It all ends in tragedy with Rusalka, a will-o’the-wisp, neither woman nor fairy, luring humans to a watery grave. Her redemption is the life of her beloved Prince.

This is a studio recording based on contemporary performances in Dresden with the same principal singers and conductor. It was broadcast in December 1948 and appeared on LP on the ‘Urania’ label in 1952. This is its first release on CD after ‘some improvements in the sound design had to be made’. The voices are well forward of the orchestra - the overall sound being a little harsh. That being said, the result is preferable to the rather restricted and boxed sound of many studio recordings of that period.

For many years the best performance on record, sometimes the only one available, was on the Supraphon label. It featured Gabriela Benackova in the name part and Wieslaw Ochman as the Prince, under the idiomatic baton of Vaclav Neumann (1982/3). This was usurped when Decca in 1998 recorded Renée Fleming in her signature role under the aforesaid Charles Mackerras, as idiomatic a conductor of this music as any Czech. In the present performance Joseph Keilberth (b.1908), who had spent the World War II years in Prague, is by no means overshadowed by his competitors. His reading exhibits good pacing, phrasing and support for his singers.

The Decca issue is sung in the original language whereas this issue is sung in German. Given the nature of the aural production of German this is not too great a burden when making comparisons, particularly when it is the native language of the singers. However, when it comes to the two lead singers this issue cannot compete with the Decca. Elfride Trotschel’s ‘Song of the Moon (CD1 tr.3), and by which most people know the opera, is a poor rendition. She lacks the capacity to float the phrases in the ethereal manner that is Fleming’s hallmark. Benackova too is superior in expression and legato. Trotschel rises well to the challenge of her Act 2 confrontation with her father (CD2 tr.4), where her expression, diction and vocal security are much better, although she does abbreviate the final climactic note. Helmut Schindler’s Prince starts well with good clear tenor tone. However his contribution deteriorates rapidly, his voice becoming dry and bleating (CD2 tr:2), the phrasing choppy and the result bereft of appeal. Of the other principals Gottlob Frick stands out. Whether advising, cajoling or admonishing Rusalka, his tone is secure and diction exemplary with excellent feeling for expression in a phrase. Helena Rott’s low mezzo is a suitably threatening witch with good diction, but I found a rather ‘hooty’ centre to her voice that did not appeal to my ear. She lacks the quality of voice or interpretative depth of Dolores Zajick for Decca.

The booklet has notes on the work and recording together with a brief synopsis and artist profiles in English and German. A full libretto is provided in German. An extended track-related synopsis would have been welcome as would page references to the libretto on the track list. This issue will be of interest to those wanting the opera in German, or hearing particular singers, notably Gottlob Frick, in roles not available elsewhere.

Robert J Farr



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