6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A welcome reissue of a rarely heard but rewarding Russian opera,
This review is from: Dargomyzhsky: Rusalka (Audio CD)
This is a very welcome reissue by Brilliant Classics. I have written a review of a previous release of this recording from the 1980s, the bulk of which I have reprinted below. Sadly, Brilliant haven't (I understand) provided much in the way of information about this important work nor do they provide a libretto in either Russian or English but the earlier release by the label Relief* only provided a libretto in Russian and a rather poor booklet essay too so unless you understand Russian you will lose little or nothing by purchasing this bargain-priced release instead of the more expensive alternative issue. If you are interested in Russian opera, I can fully recommend getting to know this fascinating work.
Dargomyzhsky's `Rusalka' has a significant place in the development of Russian opera and is probably the most important stage work between Glinka's two seminal masterpieces and the operas of the Mighty Handful and Tchaikovsky. It is good, therefore, to have this Soviet recording of the work available on compact disc. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it became something of a repertory staple in Russia and Chaliapin brought it to the West following the First World War, the role of the avaricious miller being ideally suited to his acting talents; without Chaliapin to endorse the work it failed to make any further headway in the West, although it continued to be performed in the USSR.
Perhaps not as polished technically as Glinka's two operas, dramatically (as Gerald Abraham once put it) "the sapog is on the other foot" and Dargomyzhsky's use of melodic recitative that aimed to follow the natural inflexions of spoken Russian are perhaps the most innovative quality of this enjoyable work; in this it foreshadows the composer's `Stone Guest' but unlike that work it doesn't eschew the regular conventions of opera at that time and contains set numbers - choruses, arias and ensembles. The "mad scene" between the miller and the prince in act three is really quite unlike any "mad scene" that had been written to that date and in the right hands can be extremely moving; a more subtle example of Dargomyzhsky's talent can also be heard in the scene between the prince and Natasha, where the prince announces that he is breaking off their love affair. It is in passages such as this, where Dargomyzhsky's word-setting is so crucial to the opera's significance, that a decent copy of the libretto and parallel translation is absolutely essential and it's regrettable that neither release of this recording provides the listener with an English language version of the sung text.
For the remainder of the opera, notwithstanding some melodies in the Russian folk style and some dances, the music is standard operatic fare for the period but that is not meant pejoratively at all, I should add: Dargomyzhsky has considerable lyrical gifts, well displayed in Natasha's harp-accompanied song at the wedding or the prince's expansive aria, sung when he returns to the abandoned mill; a counterpart to those passages is the miller's darkly comical aria in the opening act - made famous by Chaliapin but a recital favourite of many other Russian (and Russian-speaking) bass singers too. The composer is something of a minor master of stage craft as well - the wedding scene is particularly well-done and there is a real control of tension as the act progresses to the dramatic ensemble finale. Stylistically, you might be reminded of early or even middle period Verdi at times - and that is not just meant as an indicator of the idiom here but also of the quality of the music.
The cast is a strong one and Vedernikov - a soft-toned bass who hasn't always got his due in the West, I feel (in my opinion, his Boris Godunov was superb, one of the best I have heard) - makes the miller an extremely believable and sympathetic figure. Vladimir Fedoseyev leads the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra (formerly known, amongst other things, as the USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra) in pretty much ideal performances too. The recording, as was usual with Soviet opera recordings from this period, is very bright and a touch reverberant with the voices a little unnaturally forward of the orchestra. It is more than acceptable, however, and even taking into account the poor presentation, this is a very recommendable release.
* Russalka (2CD)