Cheryl Barker (Rusalka), Elizabeth Whitehouse (Foreign Princess), Anne-Marie Owens (Jezibaba), Sian Pendry (Kitchen Boy), Sarah Crane, Taryn Fiebig, Dominica Matthews (Wood Nymphs), Rosario La Spina (Prince), Barry Ryan (Gamekeeper/Huntsman), Bruce Martin (Woodsprite) 

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Opera Australia Chorus c. Richard Hickox 

Chandos 10449 (3 discs 153 minutes) 


This live recording, taken from a rapturously received Australian stage premiere of Dvorák’s opera in March 2007, is the second Australia Opera release from Chandos under Richard Hickox, after Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges in English. Evidently the company, under Hickox’s directorship, now extended until 2012, is in fine fettle and the musical results evinced here, both orchestral and vocal, are extremely impressive. 


There is strong competition for a further Czech language recording of Rusalka, in particular from Vaclav Neumann and Gabriela Benacková on Supraphon, and Sir Charles Mackerras and Renée Fleming on Decca -  both studio recordings. The Chandos has a shallower recording quality, as befits a live performance, but the orchestral detail, particularly the filigree orchestration with piccolo and bass clarinet registers in great detail, and the placing of the voices is natural and unforced. Hickox favours a dramatic approach, which keeps this leisurely, if not discursive, opera on the move and plays down the more impressionistic elements in the score. Cheryl Barker’s bright tone fits well to this rather more daylit interpretation than usual and she is impassioned and alive to the Czech text, more so than Fleming, and her temperament is impassioned, yet in the last resort lacking the American diva’s vocal allure.  For a purely listening experience one needs, maybe, more light and shade in the tone. Rosario La Spina’s Prince has appealing and ardent timbre and rides the climaxes and top C well. Elizabeth Whitehouse is an opulent and dangerous Foreign Princess, and Anne-Marie Owens is much more than just a bully as the witch, Jezîbaba, revealing unexpected shades of venom. The rest of the cast is strong, in particular Bruce Martin’s baleful Water Sprite – the only slight caveat is that the trio of Wood Nymphs do not possess a collective legato, which divests their last act idyll of some magic. 


As an aural experience, a ‘daylit’ Rusalka is thought-provoking – but most of the opera takes place at night and the moon is omnipresent. Though the Act timings in Mackerras’s recording are all slower, he brings out much more nuance and gradates the climaxes in a much more cathartic manner, mindful of the considerable Wagnerian shadows of this score. Paradoxically one is less aware of the longueurs and excessive repetition of certain of the shorter leitmotivs in such an approach. A quick comparison of the Prince’s heartfelt declaration to the silent Rusalka‘I know you are just magic and will fade away, but while we have time, come to me my fairytale!’ - that concludes Act One speaks volumes: Hickox is bright, thrusting and exciting, Mackerras’s more tentative approach underlines the loneliness of the character, and the desperation to make some sort of contact, and when the climax comes there is an underlying desperation that contains the seeds of the forthcoming tragedy – it just seems to go deeper. Mackerras is more varied in pacing at the conclusion of the problematic second act – Hickox’s driving drama exposes the music as rather fustian for its time, over reliant on stock gestures and the perpetual agitato is undifferentiated as regards character and psychology – both Neumann and Mackerras characterize more acutely.


Hickox leads a very good performance of a problematic score, which is involving in its own way: I can’t help thinking this version would have had more justification in a crowded scene had it been either in English, or a DVD.


© Julian Grant 2008