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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka, Lyrical fairy tale in three acts, Op. 114 (1900)
Rusalka - Magdalena Polkowska
Prince - Tadeusz Szlenkier
Water-gnome - Jacek Greszta
Jezibaba - Darina Gapicz
Foreign Princess - Katarzyna Nowak-Stańczyk
Gamekeeper - Pavlo Tolstoy
Turnspit - Victoria Vatutina
Wood-sprites - Krystyna Nowak, Marta Ustyniak, Ewa Banasiak, Mariola Winkler-Kołtyś, Lidia Golińska, Dorota Sobczak
Orchestra, Choir and Ballet of the Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz/Maciej Figas
rec. 2015 Opera Nova, Bydgoszcz, Poland
Sound format: Dolby Digital 5.1/Dolby Digital 2.0
Picture Format: 16:9/PAL
Subtitles: Polish, English, German
DUX DVD 8178 [2:13:30]

Poland’s Opera Nova of Bydgoszcz may be an unfamiliar house to many of us, yet its production of Dvořák’s Rusalka is quite enjoyable.

Dvořák’s “lyrical fairy tale” of 1900, to a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, draws upon the gloomy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben. Dvořák turned to Erben for inspiration in several of his other works, including the Spectre’s Bride, The Noon-day Witch, The Wild Dove, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and the Water Goblin. The stories are rather shocking, and undermine the superficial impression many casual listeners have of Dvořák as a sunny, upbeat kind of composer. In his Erben-inspired works, Dvořák explores the darkly neurotic passions contained in these tales of doomed ancient Slavs. In Rusalka, the main theme is hopeless love, but directors can also find in this opera adolescent anxiety, male domination, class tension, and vengeance. Some may prefer just to focus on the water sprites.

Rusalka, daughter of a Water Goblin, falls in love with a human prince. Jezibaba, a witch, tells Rusalka that the price for her forbidden love is that she will lose her voice. The bored Prince is soon cavorting with a foreign princess. Abandoned by this new love, the Prince returns to a very unhappy Rusalka, whose kiss kills him.

The Bydgoszcz singers are quite fine. Magdalena Polkowska as Rusalka sings pleasingly with considerable power. She does not efface thoughts of Renée Fleming (who has recorded this role at least three times – in Prague, Paris, and New York), but I enjoyed her performance. Tadeusz Szlenkier is sometimes a little stiff as the Prince, but deploys his sweet voice ardently and powerfully. Jacek Greszta’s Water Goblin is appropriately melancholy as the troubled father, and conveys a sense of the patriarch who has lost control. Darina Gapicz’s Jezibaba is a great witch, more stylish than most, yet funny and engaging.

The staging is rather conservative, which may be welcome to those who tire of directors ginning up the sex and violence in this opera. The story is set in some imaginary olden time with costumes that suggest various eras between the Napoleonic wars and the Great Depression. With bright colors and a slightly cartoonish set, this works well, and allows Rusalka’s moments of grim terror to be juxtaposed with the happiness of others.

The production is also a bit of boosterism for the city of Bydgoszcz. The stage recreates the city’s iconic bridge (iconic if you are Polish), and the Water Goblin is patterned after a Bydgoszcz statue of a tight-rope walker over the river. Unlike the actual statue, the Water Goblin wears pants in the opera. The Water Goblin, Rusalka, and the Water Sprites all live under the bridge, which may have been required in this Dvořák-comes-to-Bydgoszcz concept, but the staging also raises the political question, who lives under bridges, and how are they treated by those who live in houses? Dvořák calls for three Water-Sprites, but this production uses nine. Their sometimes chirpy trios thus become choral, but no harm is done.
The Trolley in Act II may be a step too close to operetta-land for many. But this is offset by such dark touches as a shark leading the courtiers in dance, and the mockery of a gigantic moon (but not while Rusalka is singing her big aria “Song to the Moon”). Audiences will love it and you may too.

Conductor Maciej Figas paces the opera effectively, and the orchestra plays clearly and with some panache. There is some exceptional horn playing. The quality of the recording is high, but the DVD lacks cue points except for the three acts. This doesn’t really keep you from finding favorite bits, but it makes you work a little harder at it.

Competition is stiff for recordings of Rusalka. There are DVDs of productions in New York, Brussels, Munich, and Paris, featuring star performers (Fleming, Opolais, Vogt, Leiferkus). There are still more CD versions. I would not make this Bydgoszcz production my first choice, but it gives much pleasure.

In an earlier review I grumbled that it was difficult to find Dux recordings for download. I am happy to report that I was mistaken, and that carries many excellent Dux titles, if not yet the wonderful Szymon Laks string quartets I was praising.

Richard Kraus



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