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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka – opera in three acts (1900) [152:37]
Cheryl 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 (mezzo)
Opera Australia Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. live, March 2007, Sydney Opera House
CHANDOS CHAN10449 [3 CDs: 54:04 + 43:40 + 54:53]
Experience Classicsonline

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 somewhere.
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 bad idea.
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 somewhat bullish.
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.
Christopher Howell


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