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Decca Phase 4
Rusalka – opera in three acts (1900) [152:37]
Barker - Rusalka (soprano); Rosario La Spina - Prince (tenor);
Anne-Marie Owens - Ježibaba (mezzo); Bruce Martin
- Water Sprite (bass); Elizabeth Whitehouse - Foreign Princess
(soprano); Barry Ryan - Gamekeeper/Huntsman (baritone);
Sian Pendry - Turnspit (soprano); Sarah Crane - 1st Wood
Nymph (soprano); Taryn Fiebig - 2nd Wood Nymph
(soprano); Domenica Matthews - 3rd Wood Nymph
Opera Australia Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. live, March 2007, Sydney Opera House
CDs: 54:04 + 43:40 + 54:53]
For about the first eighty years of its existence, Dvořák’s
operatic masterpiece looked like being a somewhat fragile creature,
difficult to transplant from its native soil. Negotiations
between Dvořák and Mahler for a Vienna premičre fell
through and in the post-war years a production at Sadler’s
Wells flopped. Joan Hammond, the Rusalka, considered these
performances among the highlights of her career; nor was
there any doubt about Vilém Tausky’s dedication in the pit.
The problems seem to have been visual. At about the same
time (Dresden 1948) Joseph Keilberth gave the work in Germany,
a performance which has recently surfaced on CD (reviewed
by Robert J. Farr). It looked, therefore, as if Dvořák-lovers
outside Czechoslovakia – as it still was – would have to
be content to hear the music at home by courtesy of one of
the Supraphon recordings, the 1952 mono under Krombholc – which
I’ve never heard – or the 1961 stereo one under Chalabala,
through which I came to know and love this opera. Googling
around, I find a few other versions dating from the 1970s,
but they seem not to have been widely available. A 1971 East
Berlin recording under Arthur Apelt had Annelies Burmeister
as the Witch and Theo Adam as the Watersprite. Bohumil Gregor
conducted a recording in Holland in 1976 with Teresa Stratas
as Rusalka and Willard White as the Watersprite. From the
same year, a Munich version under Janowski again has Theo
Adam as the biggest name in the cast. Sylvia Sass’s website
refers to a 1979 recording under Janowski which must exist
But it was in the 1980s that things began to change. The opera’s French
premičre in 1982 was quickly forgotten, but 1982/83 was the
year of the first complete recording, again on Supraphon.
Conducted by Václav Neumann, this not only expunged the traditional
stage cuts but introduced a singer whose truly lustrous timbre
promised a career well beyond the confines of Czechoslovakia – Gabriela
Benačková. The interest aroused by this recording led
to some important firsts. Rusalka achieved its long-delayed
Vienna premičre, with Benačková as Rusalka and Neumann
conducting, in 1987. Also in 1987, the indefatigable Eve
Queler put on a concert performance with Benačková in
New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, paving the way for the opera’s
premičre at the Metropolitan. This took place in 1993, again
with Benačková and conducted by John Fiore.
Meanwhile, English National Opera had made amends for the earlier
Sadler’s Wells failure. David Pountney’s production is remembered
as one of the high points of Mark Elder’s tenure and a video
from 1986 is reviewed
by John Leeman. This production attracted the attention
of that great man of the theatre Giancarlo Menotti, who imported
it to Rome Opera in the 1993/4 season. Nancy Gustafson was
Rusalka and Richard Hickox conducted. Over in the United
States, even as Benačková was triumphing at the Met – and
revealing some vocal wear, see below – a young singer presenting
the role in other cities was about to take her mantle as
the reigning Rusalka – Renée Fleming. Her 1998 Decca recording
under Mackerras won much acclaim and she was the Rusalka
when Paris finally opened its doors to the opera in 2002.
A video of this production, conducted by James Conlon, is
available. Fleming was the natural choice for the Metropolitan
revival in 2004, the Dvořák centenary year. At this
point it can be said that Rusalka is established in the international
repertoire. Following a performances in Turin last year (Teatro
Regio) it is about to return to Rome, while in Denmark Michael
Schǿnwandt is to conduct a production opening in March
2008. And from down under, this Chandos set derives from
the opera’s Australian debut.
When reviewing a reissue of the Chalabala
set I made a detailed comparison with the Neumann performance.
Rather to my surprise I found that, while Chalabala is
wonderful in those moments of moonlit magic for which the
opera is most loved, Neumann is hardly less so, and at
the same time characterizes more meaningfully the extraneous
elements which clash with the fairy-tale world – the festivities
at the castle, the Foreign Princess and the comic relief
of the scenes with the Gamekeeper and Turnspit. His is
a more modern and more complete interpretation. In certain
other recordings Neumann has seemed a dull dog, so it is
worth emphasizing that he shows real poetry here. I haven’t
listened again to Chalabala this time, but I have included
in my comparisons not only Neumann’s studio recording but
also a recording of the Vienna premičre which has been
issued by Orfeo (see
review by Christopher Fifield) and an off-the-air tape
of the 1993 Metropolitan premičre. What I am afraid I am
not able to do is to tell readers whether the Fleming/Mackerras
is preferable to the Neumann, though I must say the Neumann
seems to me so good that I don’t see how another recording
could do more than equal it.
Back in 1982 Benačková’s voice had a wonderfully fresh sheen
to it. It was not perhaps very big – though the top notes
were firm and thrilling – but this only added an extra degree
of fragility to her portrayal of the water nymph’s plight.
The 1987 and 1993 performances seem to document an attempt
to make the voice bigger. In place of the fresh lustre there
is a rounder but also a blunter sound. While at the bottom
end the chest tones are engaged recklessly. In 1987 the process
had barely begun; by 1993 it was more noticeable. I have
had to comment, unfortunately, on a 1995
recital where the decline is there for all to hear.
Cheryl Barker’s voice opens up excitingly on the top notes, but in
the medium-high range her timbre has no especial qualities.
She gives a committed performance, yielding to the 1982 Benačková on
the subtler shades of interpretation.
The very detailed notes by Jan Smaczny mention that one of the main
reasons why negotiations between Dvořák and Mahler fell
through was because of the latter’s insistence on eliminating
the Gamekeeper and Turnspit scenes. An obstinate lot, these
Viennese; when the opera finally reached Vienna they might
have gained extra publicity by calling it the “Mahler version”,
for not a Gamekeeper nor a Turnspit was to be seen or heard.
In addition to these major excisions, Neumann made a lot
of smaller snips all through, lopping twenty minutes off
the timing of his studio recording.
The Gamekeeper and the Turnspit were reinstated at the Metropolitan
in 1993, but pretty hacked about, especially in the second
act. Without checking, I’d say Fiore’s text was about the
same as Chalabala’s. Hickox gives the score uncut.
In his conducting of what’s left, however, Neumann remains supreme
in the first two acts. He evidently hit it off with the Viennese
players and draws from them both refined nuance and sizzling
vitality. Differences with the studio recording are minimal
but he occasionally distils even greater poetry here. In
Act Three something goes awry. Rusalka’s aria near the beginning
goes notably slower and sags somewhat. Thereafter things
never pick up entirely. The music seems less conducted than
before and just going through the motions on the basis of
sound preparation. 67 is no great age for a conductor, but
I wonder if Neumann had health problems that made it inadvisable
for him to conduct an entire opera.
I suppose that, with increasingly frequent performances, we’ll be
getting revisionist interpretations of the score before long.
As things stand, the general pacing and colouring doesn’t
vary a great deal between the various conductors. I find
Neumann that little bit more detailed and the colours of
the Czech Philharmonic give his version added tang and bite.
But John Fiore, at the Met, obviously knew how the music
had to go and Hickox, as already mentioned, was no stranger
to the score. He gives a thoroughly understanding reading.
I just miss that extra spot of personal dedication that I
find in Neumann. A very good orchestra but without star-quality
wind soloists and a warm and clear recording without the
presence of the Supraphon further combine to give the impression
of efficiency rather than magic. I’m a little worried that
this is so very much what I would have anticipated. I hope
that I’m not just finding what I expected to find; this is
a case where a blind listening test might not have been a
I have been unhappy in the past with Wiesław Ochman’s Prince
for Neumann. It’s true that his agreeably plangent timbre
can seem strained when passion and ardour are called for.
At the other end of the scale, Peter Dvorsky took the part
under Neumann in Vienna, providing a stream of full-throated
Italianate sound. Ben Heppner at the Met (he also sings on
the Mackerras recording) and Rosario La Spina don’t go that
far but are on similar lines. However, Ochman comes into
his own in the last act. He provides exquisite half-tones
for the Prince’s dying moments. In particular, his handling
of the top C is memorably honeyed. Dvořák specifically
wrote “non strillare” (“don’t scream”) over this. Dvorsky
is simply ghastly here; screaming is the only word to describe
it. Heppner and La Spina are not actually unpleasant, but
Another of Neumann’s assets in 1982 was Věra Soukupová’s Witch,
powerful and threatening without caricature. In Vienna he
had Eva Randova, who was more obviously out to create a “character”.
She also took the part of the Foreign Princess, somewhat
stridently as it was a notch too high for her. At the Met,
Stefania Toczyska’s Witch was big and Azucena-like, while
Anne-Marie Owens is possibly not quite big enough. In her
Act Three scene with Rusalka, this is the only recording
where Rusalka sounds the more imposing personality.
Richard Novák, for Neumann, seems to have established the tradition
of a sinister Water Sprite, as distinct from the rather avuncular
figure, stern but kindly, portrayed by Eduard Haken for Chalabala
(he also took the part for Krombholc). Successive Water Sprites
have followed his lead. Jevgeny Nesterenko, in Vienna, perhaps
provides opera buffs with their best reason for acquiring
that version. Sergei Kopčak at the Met and Bruce Martin
are good but make less of an impression. For instance, in
the Water Sprite’s Act Two aria, Martin is the only one to
sing really softly. Ostensibly, this is what Dvořák
asked for, but in reality the music seems to have been conceived
with a big Slavonic bass in mind, so perhaps the frequent “sotto
voce” instructions are to be understood relatively.
The Foreign Princess is well taken by Drahomíra Drobková (Neumann
Supraphon), Janis Martin (Met) and Elizabeth Whitehouse.
Neumann’s conducting in the studio of the final stages of
Act Two has extraordinary fire, and it is perhaps this which
makes Drobková appear the most dangerously visceral.
A minor irritation in the Neumann studio recording could be the rather
shrill timbre of Jiřina Marková’s Turnspit, the type
of voice sometimes preferred for comic breeches roles. The
comic characterization seems a bit exaggerated from the Jindřich
Jindrák’s Gamekeeper, too. On the other hand, Barry Ryan
and Ian Pendry do not really characterize the music at all.
At the end of the day, then, the Chandos is an excellent performance
which can be confidently bought if you’re a fan of one of
the singers, but the Neumann Supraphon sounds more and more
like one of the great opera sets every time I hear it. The
last fifteen minutes or so, for instance, didn’t move me
all that much under Hickox. I wondered if hearing the music
four times in close succession was deadening my response.
So I listened to the end once more under Neumann and it moved
me yet again. And there you have it in a nutshell. I’m sure
you’ll enjoy the Hickox but I think you’ll find Neumann deeply
moving on another level.
If you’re out for a bargain, then cut versions do have the advantage
that they fit onto only two CDs. In which case the Chalabala
still has a lot to offer.
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