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Alexander DARGOMYZHSKY (1813-1869)
Rusalka - opera in four acts, in six tableaux (1848/55) [166.38]
Text by the composer, after Alexander Pushkin
Natasha (Rusalka) - Evelina Dobračeva (soprano)
Miller - Arutjun Kotchinian (bass)
Prince - Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Princess - Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo)
Olga - Elena Bryleva (soprano)
Hunter and Matchmaker - Andrey Telegin (bass)
Rusalochka, daughter of Rusalka and the Prince - Martha Jurowski (speaking part)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln,
WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln/Michail Jurowski
rec. April 2008 Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln, Germany
No text provided. Synopsis only
PROFIL EDITION GÜNTER HÄNSSLER PH 09024 [3 CDs: 60.30 + 37.13 + 67.55]

This is not a new release but I felt that MusicWeb International should have a review of this 2008 recording of this important early Russian opera. Michail Jurowski conducts a predominantly Russian cast working with German orchestral and choral forces.

Today Dargomyzhsky is a woefully neglected and rather shadowy figure known almost exclusively to Russian music specialists. Dargomyzhsky is the link between Mikhail Glinka and Tchaikovsky onwards to Rachmaninov. Dargomyzhsky is best known for The Stone Guest an opera left incomplete at his death and finished by César Cui and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This was posthumously premièred in 1872.

Based on Pushkin’s unfinished dramatic poem Rusalka was written during 1848/55 and predates Dvořák’s opera of the same name and subject by some forty-five years. The inspiration behind this Rusalka came about, it seems, as a result of reading the opening line of Pushkin’s poem “The Mermaid (Rusalka) sits on the branches.” Unsatisfied with the outline librettos that had been prepared for him Dargomyzhsky wrote his own text faithfully following Pushkin’s verse.

Premièred in 1856 at the Circus Theatre, St. Petersburg — located on the site now occupied by the Mariinsky Theatre — Rusalka suffered an inferior production and was not a success. Only at an 1865 revival in the newly constructed Mariinsky Theatre did the quality of Rusalka become acknowledged. Today this Rusalka forms part of the Mariinsky Opera Company’s repertoire and there was a recent revival conducted by Valery Gergiev at the new Mariinsky II in 2013.

In Pushkin’s Rusalka entering the water represents a gateway into an intriguing realm of transferred powers and consolidated worlds. In Slav mythology Rusalki are unmarried female spirits — sometimes called water-nymphs and occasionally mermaids — who experience violent deaths and live at the bottom of lakes and rivers. This is a tale of anguish, a combination of fairy-tale and real life issues that result in the Prince entering the subterranean kingdom to be with his adored Natasha who is now the Tsarina of the Rusalki water kingdom. Crucial elements include the tremendous torment of the grieving father (the Miller), the intense hurt of the rejected woman (Natasha) and the belated atonement of the Prince. In the final act the young girl Rusalochka, played by Martha Jurowski, is required to speak her lines which sound rather peculiar as if laid on top of the recorded sound.

Soprano Evelina Dobračeva sings the role of heroine Natasha, a mortal woman who later becomes a Rusalka after killing herself by jumping into the Dnieper. Natasha’s (Rusalka) scene and aria at the end of act four is notable as is her siren-song in which she vows vengeance on the Prince. The Russian-born Dobračeva sings tenderly, conveying all the required emotion to entice the Prince into her subterranean realm. I was struck by her clear diction and appealing timbre which is relatively smooth-toned yet with a conspicuous if unobtrusive vibrato. Noticeably comfortable in her top register was Dobračeva’s robust and highly dramatic closing passage.

The Prince, sung with engaging charisma by Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, holds probably the most memorable part in the opera. Attractively lyrical, his stirring cavatina in act three has him painfully reminiscing over his lost love and revisiting the oak tree where he first met and embraced Natasha. The wholehearted and virile Grivnov has a satisfyingly rounded voice with fluid tone and attractive timbre.

Making a terrific impact Marina Prudenskaya excels in outstanding singing as the emotionally jaded Princess. Missing the blissful days with the Prince the Princess’s aria from act three is a terrific vocal vehicle and Prudenskaya's total immersion in the text is enthralling. This warmly expressive singer is splendidly in tune with a voice the dark-tinged hue of which brings committed intensity to the characterisation.

Riveting in his solid portrayal as the avaricious Miller is the distinctive Armenian bass Arutjun Kotchinian. Convincing as well as memorable is his act one aria when he offers his daughter Natasha practical advice to get the Prince formally to commit to her. Kotchinian’s warm, agreeable tone has an undertow of melancholy and his strong emphasis on the text is captivating.

Truly enthralling too are the emotional scene in act one when the Prince informs Natasha that he is ending their affair. Similarly potent is the stirring act three ‘mad scene’: the confrontation between the Prince consumed by an unknown force and the deranged Miller who thinks he is a raven.

Further down the cast-list, soprano Elena Bryleva playing Olga and bass Andrey Telegin as the hunter and matchmaker do everything that is required of them.

Under Russian conductor Michail Jurowski’s broad sweep the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln excels with warm and strongly expressive playing right from the splendid overture that sets the scene so well. The splendid folk rhythms of the stirring Slavonic and wild Gypsy dances from act two, the act three prelude and the dance of the Rusalkas from act four are well performed too; plenty of crucial atmosphere and colour. In addition the Köln orchestra’s interpretation of Dargomyzhsky’s water descriptions — waves, flows, spray and splashes — feels convincing. With its substantial and demanding material the contribution of the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln is extremely persuasive and worthy of praise.

I have no problems at all with the clear and well balanced sound. The Profil booklet contains informative notes on the music and a synopsis of the opera but no libretto and translations. That shouldn’t put anyone off experiencing this terrific drama. The main competition is a 1983 recording with a Russian cast of soloists with the Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio under Vladimir Fedoseyev reissued on Brilliant Classics.

Dargomyzhsky’s opera Rusalka is scandalously neglected and this 2008 recording serves its cause magnificently. A credit to all concerned as this is the most rewarding opera recording I have heard for some time.

Michael Cookson