Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Rusalka - opera in three acts Op.114 [166.00]
Renée Fleming (soprano) – Rusalka; Piotr Beczala (tenor) – Prince; Dolora Zajick (contralto) – Jezibaba; John Relyea (bass) – Water Gnome; Emily Magee (soprano) – Foreign Princess; Vladimir Chmelo (bass) – Gamekeeper; Julie Boulianne (mezzo) – Kitchen boy; Dísella Làrusdóttir, Renée Tatum, Maya Lahyani (sopranos and mezzo) – Wood-sprites; Alexey Lavrov (baritone) – Hunter
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. Metropolitan Opera, New York, 8 February 2014
bonus: backstage at the Met with members of the cast [7.00] DECCA 074 3874 Blu-ray [173.00]
There are a good many familiar ingredients in this Rusalka. Renée Fleming in the title role, as she was in the Decca recording which still stands supreme as a version of the opera on CD. Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the conductor, highly dramatic and engaged with the score as he was at Covent Garden in 2012. The team of Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen as director and designer, with their trademark solidity and faithfulness to the composer’s scenario. Also, regrettably, the Met audience, who manage to interrupt the onward flow of the drama with cheers after the Song to the Moon and subvert the final cadence of each Act with premature applause. However it is a pleasant change to be able to put a video production into the Blu-Ray player without a tremor or a qualm as to what peculiar ‘interpretation’ we are going to be subjected to.
Not that the plot of Rusalka, despite its mythological setting, is really in any way that conventional. One very twentieth century concept in the plot is the desire of an immortal to become human and embrace death. That notion is never (so far as I know) to be found in any legend or fairy story before the latter years of the nineteenth century – perhaps not altogether coincidentally, since it was at that time that advances in medical science made the concept of achieving at any rate an extended life-span at least a future practical possibility. Since then the theme of the wish of a supernatural being to shed the burden of deathlessness – with, it is implied, stagnation and tedium – has become widespread in modern works of fantasy, from Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde through to J R R Tolkien (who treated the theme from several different angles) and beyond. In some ways, indeed, the plot of Rusalka anticipates Strauss’s symbolist Die Frau ohne Schatten which followed less than twenty years later. All the same it is a very modern concept, and it is not at all surprising that David Pountney in his English National Opera production - at one time the only video presentation of Rusalka available - drew parallels with the notion of a young girl emerging into puberty, a viewpoint which revitalised the opera for modern audiences.
Even so the restoration of the drama to a timeless past as here has value in its own right, by setting the very modern psychological desires of the characters into a setting where those same desires seem all the more shocking in their wilfulness. The stage pictures created by Schneider-Siemssen are so beautiful as to disarm criticism; Rusalka’s song to the mist-shrouded moon must surely melt the hearts of all viewers. The opening scene, with the Goblin King chasing the water nymphs, comes overly close to the designer’s setting for the first scene of Rheingold – the Goblin King even looks like Alberich; but where in Rheingold the underwater sequences lacked credibility, here the water in the woodland pool looks real when the singers plunge into it although it is obviously achieved by gauzes and lighting effects. And the Blu-Ray medium allows the subtlety of the lighting to be fully appreciated in a manner that was not possible when the Met Ring was filmed twenty years ago. The setting for the final scene has all the atmosphere of one of those forest paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.
Otto Schenk, with his German theatrical background, has come in for quite a bit of criticism over the years for his perceived stodginess in handling his performers but this is not altogether fair. Schenk, a man of the stage to his fingertips, clearly recognises that the Metropolitan Opera system with frequent changes of performers often shoe-horned into productions with very little time for full rehearsal, does not always allow for elaborate interaction between characters but he always makes sure that the singers get to the right place at the right time to make a proper musical and dramatic impact. The results here never feel as though they have been learned by rote. The very final moments, with Rusalka leaving her dead Prince by the side of the water with only a fleeting backward glance, have a real sense of psychological truth.
It might be observed by unkind critics that Renée Fleming is no longer in the first flush of youth that she was when she first sang the title role over twenty years ago, and it must be admitted that she would be unconvincing as David Pountney’s adolescent girl but the advancing years have done nothing to dim the beauty and delicacy of her voice, and her dramatic powers have grown with time. Piotr Beczala is a handsome Prince whose ardently projected voice almost succeeds in making us forgive his heartless behaviour during Act Two. John Relyea is marvellously sonorous as the Water Goblin, and he delivers his aria during the same Act with a beautifully sustained line. The veteran Dolora Zajick still has plenty of voice for the role of Jezibaba, and she even manages to surmount the scene-stealing pantomime animals with which she is surrounded during her casting of the spell in Act One. Similarly humour is had at the expense of the Gamekeeper and his nephew, but both Vladimir Chmelo and Julie Boulianne sing well. Emily Magee is properly haughty as the foreign Princess, and turns thoroughly nasty at her final curtain.
The conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin is also a major plus to this recording. He gives us the full Wagnerian panoply of Dvorak’s scoring, conjuring up a riot of sound during the many passages of climactic eruptions - surely also modelled on Rheingold. His orchestra are vastly superior to Mark Elder’s players on the ENO/Pountney production, although the latter are not well served by a recording that sounds rather dated now. The video production makes sure that the cameras are always pointing in the right direction, and the microphone placement is also excellently judged with only one point near the end of Act Two when the Water Goblin seems to be too far recessed. All in all, this is an excellent representation of a production that it would be far too easy to dismiss as conventional. It is well thought through, well staged, excellently sung and recorded; and the plot is not at all a simple fairy story in the traditional mould, either. Not that one would recognise that fact from the bonus on this disc, a series of short backstage interviews in which mindless gush substitutes for anything more substantial. Paul Corfield Godfrey