Rusalka – Opera in three acts
Rusalka – Renée Fleming
Prince – Sergei Larin
Foreign Princess – Eva Urbanová
Vodnik – Franz Hawlata
Ježibaba – Larissa Diadkova
Huntsman – Grant Doyle
Forester – Donald Maxwell
Kitchen Boy – Martina Bauerová
Wood Nymphs – Sally Matthews, Ailish Tynan & Tove Dahlberg
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 14 July, 2003
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Dvořák’s popularity rests on a handful of works – three out of nine symphonies, only some of the orchestral pieces (Slavonic Dances, Carnival Overture), and meagre knowledge of the chamber music – there are 14 string quartets just for starters. Little of this output disappoints. His copious piano music is hardly played. And this is before we consider the religious and stage works. There are 15 operas! Stating that Dvořák is one of the great composers sometimes gets responses of incredulity. One of the attractions of his music is his consummate use of instruments and his heartfelt yet not heart-on-sleeve expression. He seems to pass some people by with his subtlety of means and intrinsic musical skills. For all his attractive dance rhythms and songful utterances, Dvořák’s sheer musicianship is a pleasure in itself.
Of his operas, Rusalka is the best known – but such familiarity is relative. Only one aria has a separate life, Rusalka’s own “O Silver Moon”, exquisite in itself, and here receiving expected if disruptive applause in what is a through-composed opera, which was given its premiere in the first year of the 20th-century, 1901. It has a simple enough storyline – water-nymph Rusalka wishes human form and all that leads from it. After a confab with the witch, and ignoring the paternal advice of Vodnik, Rusalka gets her way. Sadly, her relationship with the Prince turns sour, partly because she cannot speak (the debit side of resigning her watery habitat; although she’s able to parley with Vodnik when he slips into the Prince’s castle!) and partly because he eyes another (royalty from abroad). Rusalka returns to the lake – but things can never be as they were.
The Royal Opera is to be congratulated for fitting Rusalka into its schedule. Charles Mackerras’s authoritative conducting needs no further comment (he has recorded Rusalka for Decca), save that one notes, time and time again, Dvořák’s innate way with the orchestra, how a simple gesture speaks volumes. The ROH Orchestra plays excellently and conveys the pleasure that Dvořák gives musicians through his intrinsic writing.
These two performances of Rusalka are of the concert variety. The players remain in the pit. A screen of changing colour forms the backcloth and the singers engage in some movement and interaction. The ladies are differently costumed while the men make do with evening dress. It’s all tolerably done. Surtitles are invaluable. While some orchestral passages suggest that Dvořák was consciously filling-in for stage specifics, his invention speaks very nicely on its own terms.
Of the stellar cast, it would be futile to criticise Renée Fleming’s voice, if less difficult regarding her icy precision and lack of spontaneity – but this water-nymph can’t half sing! Her three sisters are a total delight – to watch and listen to. One suspects that Eva Urbanová would make more of her role in a full staging. Sergei Larin, a little circumspect in the ardour stakes and a tad histrionic, at least dies gracefully. Larissa Diadkova does a nice line in sorcery and Franz Hawlata is outstanding in his upholding of the Spirits’ Code of Practice while displaying fatherly care. The cameo roles of Forester and Kitchen Boy are well taken – Donald Maxwell, with score (we could pretend he’s holding an inventory of some kind), and Martina Bauerová, who is deliciously perky.
The star of the show, however, is the opera itself. It’s a superb piece of writing in which the orchestra unambiguously carries moods and characterisations. Dvořák seems to know just what to do for each situation – there are devices and stylistic traits that recall Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Liszt (the cyclical transformation at the beginning of Act Three) and Richard Strauss, the latter a curious anticipation of Der Rosenkavalier (a decade away). And that’s without the Puccinian reference in “O Silver Moon”. Dvořák is always his own man though – it’s simply that he has his finger on the pulse. If there’s a lack of dramatic focus at times, there’s also much to entrance the ear. This isn’t just the melodies (several fine arias follow “O Silver Moon”) and indigenous dance-rhythms; such imaginative touches of scoring, for example the subterranean slither of the bass clarinet in Act 3 to depict murkier waters than previously is a stroke of genius. And numerous such ’moments’ abound. Indeed, only one thing doesn’t work, a moment of gong-heralded tragic import towards the close. Dvořák doesn’t do melodrama!
Try not to miss the second performance this Thursday – either in the Opera House itself or live on Radio 3. Rusalka, the opera, is worth it!
- 17 July performance broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 7 o’clock
- Royal Opera