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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka (1901)
The Watersprite - Richard Novák (bass)
Rusalka - Gabriela Benacková (soprano)
Jezibaba, the witch - Vera Soukupova (contralto)
The Prince - Wieslaw Ochman (tenor)
The Foreign Princess - Drahomíra Drobkov (mezzo soprano)
1st Dryad - Jana Jonásova (soprano)
2nd Dryad - Daniela Sounová-Broukov (soprano)
3rd Dryad - Anna Barov (contralto)
The Gamekeeper - Jindrich Jindrák (baritone)
The Turnspit - Jinna Markov (soprano)
The Hunter - Rená Tucek (baritone)
Prague Philharmonic Chorus
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaclav Neumann
Rec 25 August-9 September 1982, 23-24 August 1983, Rudolfinum, Prague
SUPRAPHON 3718-2 633 [3CDs: 55.19, 45.53, 56.03]

Rusalka is Dvořák’s operatic masterpiece, since it brings together all his stylistic features. The libretto, by Jaroslav Kvapil, was a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's ‘Little Mermaid’, and it allowed the composer to combine set pieces with an onward flow of drama. The music has much in common with his symphonic poem The Water Sprite, which is hardly surprising since rusalki were water creatures. Structurally this is Dvořák's most cohesive opera.

Neumann and his Czech forces made their recording twenty years ago in the Rudolfinum, their splendid hall on the bank of the Vltava. The acoustic is ambient and pleasing on these discs, just as it is at a live performance, so that soloists, orchestra and chorus are heard to satisfying effect. In short, this is one of the best recordings Supraphon has given us as far as sound quality is concerned.

The score contains several fine set pieces, none of them better than Rusalka's famous Invocation to the Moon, which occurs in Act I. The leading soprano Gabriela Benacková delivers this magnificently, and moreover sings in excellent voice throughout. She perhaps lacks the special tenderness of her equivalent in the rival Mackerras recording (Decca), Renée Fleming, but she gains in respect of her more idiomatic control of the text. This point may be made more strongly still of Vera Soukupová's magnificently life-like rendition of the witch Jezibaba, for whom Dvořák created some of his most distinctive music. The part suits her vocal range and low register admirably.

Of the other singers, Wieslaw Ochman has a suitably heroic, ringing tone as the Prince, and he controls and shapes his phrasing with great sensitivity. Richard Novák in the role of the Watersprite achieves a dramatic characterisation, though his vocal control is more 'on the edge'. His dark tone and menacing characterisation work very well though.

The work of the Prague Philharmonic Chorus has great vitality and incisiveness, the standard set in the opening scene, while the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play with their customary high standards (they feature on the Mackerras set too). The percussion makes a particularly exciting effect in the dance numbers which help give the score a distinctive national flavour.

There is little to choose between these two excellent performances, but on balance the more intense conviction of Mackerras's conducting, and the special sensitivity of Renée Fleming give their version a slight edge. But to imply that the Neumann recording is anything less than first rate would be unfair. It comes with full text and translation, though the chosen font is not the easiest to read on glossy paper.

Terry Barfoot

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