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,
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
Robert J. Farr