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
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