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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka - a lyric fairy-tale in three acts Op.114 (1900)
Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil - (sung in Czech)
Prince - Peter Dvorsky (tenor)
Foreign Princess - Eva Randova (mezzo soprano)
Rusalka - Gabriele Benackova-Cap (soprano)
Water Goblin - Evgeny Nesterenko (bass)
Witch - Eva Randova (mezzo soprano)
Hunter - Alexander Maly (tenor)
First Naiad - Noriko Sasaki (soprano)
Second Naiad - Gabriele Sima (soprano)
Third Naiad - Margareta Hintermeier (mezzo soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Vaclav Neumann
A live performance from the Vienna State Opera recorded by Austrian Radio on 10 April 1987
ORFEO C638 0421 [64.32 + 75.21]
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For two reasons this is an historic recording; the most obvious one is its stunning cast of four principals tailor-made for their roles, with the seasoned Czech conductor Vaclav Neumann at the helm. The less obvious one, and which came to this reviewer as a complete surprise, was that this recorded performance was the opera’s first staging in Vienna. Written in only seven months (April to November 1900), the 59 year-old Dvořák was basking in the success of his previous opera The Devil and Kate when Prague’s National Theatre Director persuaded him to set this magical fairy-tale to music. It was a huge success at its premiere in Prague (31 March 1901), and the composer was keen to collaborate again with his librettist Jaroslav Kvapil, but this was not to be. Three years later Dvořák was dead having written Armida in the meantime, a failure which may well have contributed to the breakdown in his health. Dvořák’s operatic output spans 34 years from 1870 (Alfred) to Armida. Most of the operas, such as The King and Collier (1871), The Stubborn Lovers (1874), The Jacobin (1889), The Devil and Kate (1899) and Rusalka (1901) were well received, but Vanda (1875), Dimitrij (1881) and Armida (1904) were relative failures. Why the ten non-operatic years, 1889-1899, between The Jacobin, and The Devil and Kate? The reason is quite straightforward; Dvořák undertook two lengthy stays in America (teaching and conducting in New York), and also wrote a succession of orchestral works inspired by folk ballads, the titles of which give a clear indication of why the composer would then have been attracted by the literary essence and folk myth of Rusalka, namely The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove, all of them tone poems inspired by Karel Jaromir Erben’s collection of folk ballads published in 1853. By 1901 Dvořák’s mature style was noteworthy for his own personalised thematic fingerprints, his constantly developing use of leitmotif, highly imaginative instrumental colour, evocative sounds of nature, reference to Bohemian folk music, and all enmeshed in Romanticism and post-Wagnerian chromatic harmony.

Rusalka proved a wonderful vessel into which these ingredients could be poured, starting with three Naiads cavorting in a lake (just like the three Rhinemaidens who open Wagner’s Das Rheingold), the impressionistic sounds of a forest, and melodies and dances derived from Czech folklore. But why did it have to wait 86 years for a performance in Vienna, with which Dvořák had always had such close ties through his association with Brahms and conductor Hans Richter, both of whom championed his music there to great effect? By 1901 Mahler was in charge in Vienna. (Brahms was four years dead and Richter had moved to Manchester to take over the Hallé Orchestra) and made plans for the opera’s staging there in 1902. The four principals were cast, Berta Foerster-Lauterer as Rusalka, Marie Gutheil-Schroder as the Foreign Princess, Leo Slezak as the Prince, and Wilhelm Hesch as the Water Goblin, and it was the last-named who fell ill a month before the opening night in March 1902. Mahler promised that this meant only a postponement to the following season, not a change of heart, but nevertheless the plan came to naught for reasons which remain a mystery to this day. It was all the more surprising considering that the work had already received over 1500 performances in neighbouring Prague, and so must have been viewed by the Vienna Opera’s management as a money-making prospect.

Rusalka is a water sprite who has fallen in love with a human being, a Prince who regularly bathes in her lake. She now longs to become human so that she can feel the physical and emotional power of love. Despite warnings from the Water Goblin of the inevitable outcome of her intent, and having voiced her feelings in the famous Song to the Moon, she turns to the only one who can fulfil her wish, the Old Witch Jezibaba, and hears of the conditions attached to her demands. As soon as she becomes human she will lose her voice and, if deceived by her lover, she will be condemned to wander the earth as a will o’ the wisp bringing death to men while he would be dragged to the bottom of the lake. Sure of his love, however, Rusalka accepts these conditions and undergoes transformation, after which the Prince, out hunting, comes upon her and takes her to wed at his castle. Sure enough the idyll is soured by Rusalka’s lack of speech and by the presence of a foreign Princess intent on luring the Prince away from his bride-to-be by her own charms, and to whom he succumbs. The distraught Rusalka returns to her lake and encounters the Water Goblin, and her profound sorrow enables her to speak once again but he is unable to comfort her. A last attempt to win back the Prince’s love ends once more in rejection, the Water Goblin curses the young man for his faithlessness, and a sudden change of heart at the realisation of what he has done ends with his rejection by the Princess. In the final act, the couple’s fate comes to pass. Rusalka might yet have saved herself as Jezibaba reveals that she could return to her water sprite existence if she kills the Prince with a dagger, but this she cannot do. At night the Prince, desperate to make amends, comes to the lakeside, where the two former lovers meet. He dies in her fateful embrace sealed with a kiss, after which she sinks down into the lake.

As stated at the outset of this review, this is a star-studded cast. Benackova is ideally suited to the heroine’s role using her considerable vocal powers in a wide-ranging kaleidoscope of emotion and tonal colour, from the tenderness of sprite-like innocence to the full-blooded power of human passion. Randova’s insistence on singing both roles of Jezibaba and the Foreign Princess is akin to singing the children’s Mother and the Witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, but without any psychological or dramatic justification for taking such a decision. On the other hand the Princess is only in the second act while Jezibaba appears in the first and third, and as we get to hear more of her imposingly glorious voice as a result, it’s no bad thing. Nesterenko’s dark-hued Bolshoi bass with his continual, woeful cry of Bĕda (sadness) and Dvorsky’s ringing tenor make this glorious quartet worth its weight in vocal gold. There are cuts, in two instances substantial enough to the extent of completely excising the small roles of the old, gossipy Gamekeeper and the young scullery boy in acts two and three. These were probably made not only to sustain the dramatic focus solely on the principal characters but also to keep within the production budget in this first season under the Intendanz of Claus Helmut Drese and the musical directorship of Claudio Abbado. After opening with Penderecki’s Die schwarze Maske, Rusalka was the fourth new production in that glorious season of 1986/1987 after Verdi’s Ballo in maschera (with Price and Pavarotti), Massenet’s Werther (Baltsa, Carreras, Colin Davis), and Mozart’s Idomeneo under Harnoncourt making his debut. The season continued with other new productions, Otello (Domingo and Mehta), Schubert’s Fierrabras (Abbado), and finally Berg’s Wozzeck (Behrens, Grundheber and Abbado), all of them interwoven among the house repertoire of the day. Neumann was unrivalled in his deep understanding of his homeland’s late-Romantic idiom, and, in a noble interpretation, inspires his Viennese players to Bohemian heights they had probably never visited before. The dances are complete (Vienna has a fine ballet), the little chorus there regrettably has a verse of the processional march cut in act two, but these are tiny niggles. One cannot get away from the fact that it is a glorious experience to re-live such a memorable evening as that of 10 April 1987.

Christopher Fifield

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