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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka - Lyrical Fairytale in Three Acts op. 114 (1901)
Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil
Rusalka, Eilene Hannan (sop)
The Prince, John Treleaven (ten)
The Foreign Princess, Phyllis Cannan (sop)
The Water Spirit, Rodney Macann (bass)
Jezibaba, Ann Howard (mezzo)
The Forester, Edward Byles (bar)
The Kitchen Boy, Fiona Kimm (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera / Mark Elder
Stage Director, David Pountney
Recorded London 1986
Sung in English
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102019 DVD [159:00]

 

This DVD release is of a production that is now twenty years old but still fondly regarded by many with long memories as one of the finer achievements of English National Opera (ENO). It comes into competition with a DVD of a scrumptiously filmed Paris Opera (Bastille) production of less than four years ago that stars Renée Fleming as Rusalka. Both were originally filmed for TV.

Neither staging takes a literal view of the work, unlike a recent live performance from Britain’s Opera North where at least Rusalka sports a mermaid fish-tail in an otherwise abstract, but effective rendering. The Paris production is an art-deco affair whilst ENO has the lakeside forest context set in a Victorian-looking bedroom interior with a hole smashed through the floorboards to create something that looks like a small swimming pool. The Wood Sprites climb out of bed in long, white nightgowns while Rusalka rides a swing with her ankles bound together – obvious symbolism for her entrapment in her water nymph existence. Her father, the Water Gnome, is also disabled, trundling around the stage in a wheel-chair. All this is the creation of producer David Pountney and designer Stefaos Lazarides, both distinguished in their fields. It could easily fall flat but the company’s absolute commitment really makes it work.

Notwithstanding staging issues, what will tend to carry all before it in this opera is Dvořák’s seductive score. Like Engelbert Humperdinck in that other rather more famous late-romantic fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel, Dvořák combines delicate folksy and dance elements with some lush scoring. This clearly betrays considerable Wagnerian influence as does the skilful but sparing use of leitmotiv. In addition he indulges some wonderful musical pastoralisms, usually in the form of little woodwind solos. Intoxicating melody abounds of which Rusalka’s famous Song to the Moon is only a taste.

Structurally, Dvořák achieves a subtle balance between the self-contained tuneful number and through-composed dramatic continuity. This accommodates his dual skills as a superb tunesmith and symphonic organiser.

I am going to sit on the fence when it comes to recommending which of these two DVDs to go for, but this ENO version has the great strength of outstanding team work. It is a real ensemble rendering that surely derives from ENO’s character as an outfit much nearer to a repertory company than an international opera house where leading personnel jet in and out.. All the lead singers had sung with the company before and worked with conductor Mark Elder who had taken over the musical reins some years before. The company was riding high at the time and the orchestra was in great form. The result was artistic and emotional commitment with ensemble playing and singing of perfection.

ENO productions are always sung in English and the lead roles here are all taken by primary English speakers. The singers have outstanding diction but in spite of that it will never be possible to understand everything, especially when Dvořák’s orchestration is riding one of its swelling Wagnerian highs. It will therefore be a relief to some to know that English subtitles are provided.

Australian soprano Eilene Hannan has a voice of bell-like clarity that fits with the role’s youth, quite different from Renee Fleming’s more plummy instrument in the Paris version. She acts better than Fleming and in her scenes with the Prince matches Cornish tenor John Treleaven’s voice well. His role provides the most highly charged emotional moments and when his ringing heroic voice opens up the spine tingles; at least mine did. Those present at London’s Coliseum twenty years ago will not have been surprised to find out, two decades later, that this man had meanwhile developed into one of the most sought after Lohengrins and Siegfrieds of his generation. He uses his vocal instrument with astonishing flexibility, and at times lyricism and this wrings the maximum emotional power out of his scenes with the heroine.

Some of the supporting roles are substantial and are taken by seasoned, international opera singers who were nevertheless loyal ENO regulars. The smaller roles are immaculately played and sung, Fiona Kimm being a particularly charismatic Kitchen Boy.

Elder’s control is unerring, keeping things moving so as to maintain dramatic momentum but still allowing the music to breathe sufficiently for the score’s beauty to be savoured.

Although filmed from stage performances, the DVD version employs, sparingly, some crafty visual superimpositions that add to the atmosphere.

Rusalka may be a “lyrical fairy tale” but it is also a tragedy of human failings – of love, betrayal and regret - ending in an act of Wagnerian sacrificial redemption. When Rusalka, in effect, kisses her Prince to death to save him, Eilene Hannan and John Treleaven provide us with an unbearably moving dénouement.

The American musician, journalist and opera buff, John W Freeman has said, “Given a production that accepts and projects its mood, Rusalka can be a spellbinding experience.” This is such a production.

John Leeman

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