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Alexander DARGOMYZHSKY (1813-1869)
Russalka - opera in four Acts (1848-1855)
Natalia/Russalka, Natalia Mikhailova (sop); Miller, Alexander Vedernikov (bass); Prince, Konstantin Pluzhnikov (ten); Princess, Nina Terentyeva (m.sop); Olga, Galina Pissarenko (m.sop)
Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
Recorded Melodiya 1983
From the collection of the Russian State Foundation of Radio and TV
Silver Edition

RELIEF CR 991059 [2CDs: 76.14+76.41]

 

In a brief introduction, the booklet states ‘Completely unknown to the western public, the opera Russalka opens a new page in Russian Opera’. Very true. It is a pity that the booklet is so inadequate for English-only readers. The libretto is given only in Cyrillic script Russian, and what other information is provided is littered with errors and inadequate translation.

Western opera lovers interested in the Russian genre will at least have heard of the composer’s ‘The Stone Guest’, the third and last of his operas. Like this Russalka it is based on a Pushkin poem of the Don Juan legend and orchestrated, after his death, by Rimsky-Korsakov. The importance of the work is in its influence on a younger generation of Russian composers including Moussorgsky and other members of ‘the Five’.

Russalka was staged in St. Petersburg in 1856 and well received. There are many similarities to the plot of the Dvořák opera of the same name. An old miller lives by the river with his daughter Natalia (later Russalka) who is visited by a Prince. The miller sees monetary advantage in this, but the suitor marries the daughter of a rich and distinguished family. Natalia throws herself into the river. After years of unhappy marriage the Prince spends much time alone on the river-bank thinking of his happiness with his first love who has become Russalka queen of the river waters. While she still loves the Prince Russalka thinks of vengeance and tells her daughter mermaid to entice her father into the water. Despite the efforts of the Princess he hears the voice of his beloved Natalia and goes with the mermaid into the water.

The music of the opera is in no way nationalistic in timbre as found in the works of ‘the Five’ or even the ‘internationalised’ Tchaikovsky. It is distinctly more lyrical and less heavily orchestrated, more akin to Smetana than his compatriots. In ‘The Stone Guest’ the composer talked about declamatory ‘mezzo-recitative’, with music at times written without key signatures in tonal schemes that move to emphasise dramatic tension. In Russalka the overall mood is distinctly lyrical and tonal, with orthodox arias, duets and ensembles. What is typically Russian here is the use of chorus and orchestra as major ‘solo’ protagonists. In this performance the vibrant, well articulated and resonant chorus (CD1 tr.4), well caught by the microphones, is a big plus, as is the playing of the excellent orchestra in the melodic overture and dances (CD1 tr.1; CD2 trs.1, 8). The orchestra and chorus are well recorded in an open airy acoustic. However, the recording of the solo voices seems over-resonant in a distinctly different, even false, acoustic.

Of the soloists real quality is evinced by the miller of Alexander Vedernikov. His steady, strong, even and well-focused tone makes an outstanding contribution to the enjoyment of this performance (CD1 tr.2). As his daughter Natalia Mikhailova demonstrates a lyric-dramatic voice with a quick vibrato, good extension allied to plenty of variety of colour when needed. She has vocal heft in abundance but can, and does, sing softly and expressively when required. This latter ability is in rather short supply from her Prince who has a typical Slavic tenor voice. Slightly nasal in production his interpretation is ‘con forza’ and sometimes relentless. His tone is rather monochrome, albeit in his final scene (CD2 tr.9) he shows more expression and lyrical tendency.

Despite what is written on the inner face of the folding slipcase, and believing the castlist in the booklet and the brief but welcome artist profiles, the Princess is sung by Nina Terentyeva. She has a low mezzo with a pronounced vibrato, but I stress, not a Slavic wobble. She sings well with good dramatic and expressive range, whilst the creamy even tone of Galina Pissarenko as Olga is very welcome (CD2 tr.4).

I do not want to over-labour the deficiencies and errors of the booklet. It does at least give the artist profiles in German, French and English. However, a good track-related synopsis in these languages would have greatly enhanced comprehension of what is an interesting and enjoyable work generally well performed and recorded.

Robert J. Farr

 



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