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Alexander DARGOMIZHSKY (1813-1869)
Rusalka (1856) [152.56]
Alexander Vedernikov (bass) - Miller; Natalia Mikhailova (soprano) - Natasha, later Rusalka; Konstantin Pluzhnikov (tenor) - Prince; Galina Pisarenko (mezzo) - Princess; Nina Terentieva (soprano) - Olga; Oleg Klenov (bass) - Matchmaker, Hunter; Vasilisa Byelova (child actor) - Rusalochka
Grand Choir of USSR Radio and Television
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
rec. Moscow, 1983, exact venue not stated
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94718 [76.14 + 76.42]

Although the Melodiya recording of Dargomizhsky’s The stone guest was released on LP by EMI during the 1970s, this follow-up set of Dargomizhsky’s Rusalka received only limited circulation outside Russia. The present CD reissue may well be its first appearance in the international catalogues except in the form of an import. Unlike The stone guest - which received a new CD recording in 1995 - it is hardly known in the West at all. This makes it all the more reprehensible that Brilliant Classics yet again have failed to provide any texts or translations either in their booklet or online. The brief one-page synopsis serves no useful purpose except to demonstrate that the plot differs considerably from Dvořák’s later and much better-known opera on the same subject. It fails even to show where the breaks between the Acts come. I managed to find a copy of the vocal score on the ISMLP site - inconveniently split into a number of smaller sub-files - but this gives the text only in Cyrillic without either transliteration or translation. There is a text available online, but again only in the original Russian characters: although it is possible using a translation engine to obtain a version in fractured English.
From the score one is able to see that the composer marked a number of optional cuts, but we are here with one exception given the score absolutely complete. In fact Fedoseyev effectively inserts a repeat into the piquantly scored Gipsy dance (CD 2, track 1) which is not actually shown in the vocal score. The only cut appears to be the Dance of the mermaids which is shown in the booklet as constituting the first part of CD 2, track 8. In fact the track begins with the recitative which follows and the dance itself is missing. This cut makes for a rather short final Act.
In fact after initial indifference Rusalka became more popular than any of Dargomizhsky’s other operas in Tsarist Russia - although it was recognised that the later The stone guest was more technically interesting, not least for its influence on Mussorgsky. It was hailed by Stravinsky for “mixing the Russian popular melos and the prevailing Italianism with the most carefree and charming ease.” The opening and extended overture is very much in the standard middle-period romantic style. It could easily come from an opera of Verdi’s ‘galley years’. The use of Russian idioms is more in the manner of Glinka than Mussorgsky. It has been noted that the Russian style is confined to the peasant characters while the upper classes are more Italianate. This is admittedly true but it does confer a dramatic distinction between the two sets of characters involved, which is, after all, the mainspring of the plot.
This differs quite considerably from Dvořák’s use of the same legend. The Prince is already in love with the miller’s daughter Natasha from the outset, but throws her over for a more socially acceptable Princess without being aware of Natasha’s pregnancy. She commits suicide by throwing herself into the Dnieper, then interrupts his wedding ceremony and inveigles him into her arms beneath the waves. The opera needs good singing, and by and large it gets it here. Alexander Vedernikov is every inch the archetypal deep Russian bass. Konstantin Pluzhnikov - known nowadays principally as a rather acidic character tenor - displays a youthful lyricism and ardour which is most satisfying. On the other hand Natalia Mikhailova is one of those piping Russian sopranos who thankfully avoids any sense of Slavonic wobble but whose voice nevertheless has a rather steely edge. Galina Pisarenko sounds rather mature for the Princess, with greater strength in her lower register but plenty of body higher up as well. The choir, as one might expect, are superb especially in their haunting passage at the opening of CD 1 track 4 with its accompanying oboe solo.
There appears at one stage to have been an alternative recording of Rusalka available from the Bolshoi conducted by Svetlanov. Given its the date of 1957 the sound is nothing like as good as in this 1983 recording. Nor, with the possible exception of Ivan Kozlovsky as the Prince, does the cast look anything like as good as we have here. There is also a Cologne performance given under the title Russalka - again without text or translation - conducted by Jurowski on Profil as recently as 2010. This was well reviewed by John Allison in BBC Music Magazine, but Henry Fogel in Fanfare much preferred Fedoseyev. Indeed the recorded sound in the Russian studio is preferable to that from the Cologne live performance if you can accept the very forward placement of the voices in Moscow. Apart from the soprano, the singing in Cologne is generally inferior. I have listened to excerpts from both these alternatives, and since neither of them apparently have texts or translations either I have little hesitation in directing you to this set if you want to explore an interesting and enjoyable opera. On the other hand the opera was conducted in a revival at the Mariinsky this year by Gergiev, and it is not impossible that a recording of this performance may be released in due course. The Fedoseyev recording includes a few stage effects - clapping during the peasant dances in Act One - which add to the atmosphere. The break between CDs comes in the middle of the rather conventional ballet music during the Prince’s wedding celebrations. The two discs are very well filled and the split causes no pain although the whole of the ballet could actually have been included on CD1. The Weigle set, which spreads over three discs, does include the Dance of the mermaids omitted here; and very charming it is too, although its inclusion in the Fedoseyev would have probably exceeded the possible length of two discs. One wonders if it was included in the original Russian LP release.
One oddity: there appear to be more solo performers in the cast than are actually credited in the booklet. The quartet in the finale to the Second Act (CD2, track 2) includes a part for the Prince’s father-in-law which is firmly sung by an anonymous bass. The synopsis on Wikipedia also lists a solo baritone role for “the Matchmaker” whose lines I was not able to determine from the vocal score. Again no singer is credited. A presumably pirated YouTube posting of the recording credits Oleg Klenov who I suspect may have taken both roles. Similarly there is no credit in the booklet for the accomplished and very young child actress who takes the role of Rusalka’s daughter in the final scenes with her characteristic harp accompaniment.
Dargomizhsky’s Rusalka is never likely at this stage to overtake Dvořák’s in popularity. There is nothing here to rival the Song to the moon from the later opera. Nevertheless it does not deserve to sink into complete oblivion outside Russia, and this recording is a worthy representation. One does wish though that Brilliant Classics in rescuing this performance had at the very least provided a more extensive and helpful synopsis of the action.
Paul Corfield Godfrey