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Antonín Dvorák: Rusalka
Renée Fleming (Rusalka), Larissa Diadkova (Jezibaba), Sergei Larin (The Prince), Franz Hawlata (The Water Spirit), Eva Urbanova (The Foreign Princess), Michel Sénéchal (The Gamekeeper), Karine Deshayes (The Kitchen Boy), Michelle Canniccioni (1st Wood Nymph), Svetlana Lifar (2nd Wood Nymph), Nona Javakhidze (3rd Wood Nymph), Kevin Greenlaw (The Voice of a Huntsman), Orchestra and Chorus of The Opéra National de Paris, Jean Laforge (Chorus Master), James Conlon (Conductor), Robert Carsen (Stage Director/Lighting Designer), Michael Levine (Sets and Costume Designer), Philippe Giraudeau (Choreographer), François Roussillon (Director for Television and Video)
Recorded at the Opéra Bastille (June 2002) – 155’
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107 031 – Booklet in English, French, and German

This is the type of review I hate to write, but let me start with the good qualities of this video performance, and there are many. First of all, the musical values are excellent and of very high quality. Maestro James Conlon’s conducting is wonderful. The music comes alive under his baton, and he details the extraordinary colors and orchestral textures of Antonín Dvorák’s finest and most famous opera, and he lends an excellent support to the singers.

The cast, headed by soprano Renée Fleming, is vocally superb right down the line. I first encountered Ms. Fleming in concert over 20 years ago, and it was in the title role of Rusalka with the Concert Opera of Washington, D. C. Rusalka is now one of her signature roles and she has certainly grown in the role since I first heard her. Vocally she gives a highly detailed and expressive performance. She is absolutely ravishing in the famous “Song to the Moon”, and her performance grows in intensity and dramatic power and the opera progresses.

She is followed closely by Larissa Diadkova as the witch Jezibaba. Ms. Diadkova is almost over the top in her cackling, psychotic acting. She gets her point across. Sergei Larin makes a vocally romantic Prince, and he sings with the beautiful lyric tone typical of many Russian tenors. Mr. Larin passed away shortly after this recording, and it is a splendid testament to his vocal artistry. The Three Wood Nymphs, Michelle Canniccioni, Svetlana Lifar, and Nona Javahkidze, do much of the loveliest singing in the opera. Dvoøák writes some of the most melodic, colorful, and haunting music for this trio, which calls to mind Richard Wagner’s Rhine Maidens. Franz Hawlata, with his dark and resonant baritone, is most imposing as the evil Water Spirit. Eva Urbanova is imperious and vocally commanding as the Foreign Princess. After Ms. Fleming, she has the finest voice in the cast. Michel Sénéchal and Karine Deshayes give some much needed comic relief with superbly drawn characterizations as the Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy. Their joint scene in Act III with Jezibaba is quite wonderful. The recorded sound is clean, lush, and expansive. It can be played in regular stereo or in Dolby Digital DTS.

Well, so much for the audio aspects of this production, now for the visuals. I really don’t know exactly what to say about the production. Rusalka is not an opera that I know well. I have only seen it once and that was a concert version, neither do I own a recording. Watching Robert Carsen’s staging with Michael Levine’s sets and costumes left me completely in the dark and thoroughly confused. After three viewings I still did not understand what was going on, even though I had read the synopsis of the scenes. The 4th go-around I got smart and played the English subtitles, and that helped make some sense of the proceedings. The set looks like a futuristic, underwater insane asylum. Inmates sleep on the floor and have pillow fights. They wear white gowns that look like hospital frocks. Strange men in dark hats with sun glasses come in and out. Are they doctors or figments of the imagination? Is Rusalka imagining all of this? Is she schizophrenic? Is it all in her head? Is Ježibaba a psychotic murderer? Or am I imagining all of this? Go figure! I really don’t have a clue. These modern stagings are, as I have been told, an attempt by directors to clarify the opera for today’s audiences. It only confused me.

My only previous encounter with director Robert Carsen’s work was his Lohengrin at the MET several season ago, in which all of the principals were wrapped in blue Mylar, and they walked about like very stiff robots. I did not understand that staging either and it certainly did not clarify Wagner’s drama.

If you are looking for a video performance of Rusalka and are not familiar with the opera, this is probably not the performance you will want. If you know the opera well, have a good sense of humor, and are not easily outraged, you may perhaps be amused by this production.

Micaele Sparacino




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