The Cleveland Rusalka That Made Salzburg Gasp

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

When the Cleveland Orchestra performed Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Salzburg Festival in 2008, the reception was rapturous. “That’s how an orchestra should play opera!” was the consensus, formed as it was coincidentally during a year in which the Vienna Philharmonic delivered particularly sloppy performances. (Since there is no worse insult for an orchestra than a compliment for another, this stung: When the VPO came back in subsequent years, they sounded audibly chastened, jolted back into bouts of summer-excellence.)

In that performance on August 17, the Clevelanders under Franz Welser-Möst had, to paraphrase from my review from back then, displayed a wonderfully civilized sound, perfectly attuned to the needs of Prince Piotr Beczala and Rusalka Camilla Nylund. They bathed the singers in appropriately angular, only occasionally sumptuous Dvořák. The second act’s Tchaikovsky moments and catchy dance rhythms, ever recurring and promptly aborted, were all expertly executed by Welser-Möst and his crew.

Beczala—the only singer whose Czech sounded truly comfortable—sings his heart out. His role might be smaller than Rusalka’s (who can bank on two of the more grateful arias in 20th century opera), but he out-sings even the excellent Nylund. Better still, he is in full form up to and including the dramatic end (“Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš?”), which obviously is not a problem in studio recordings but can’t always be counted on for live productions. On the other hand, Nylund tops her Prince, would-be lover, and betrayer in the department of dramatic presentation. Some more minor roles were cast with future vocal luminaries Daniel Schmutzhard (Hunter) and Anna Prohaska (First Nymph). Fortunately the performance was recorded, and most, if not all of this, pays off on disc.

Birgit Remmert’s Ježibaba and the two Americans—mezzo Emily Magee (a clamorous, appealing foreign duchess) and bass Alan Held (a booming Water Goblin)—complete the well-above-average vocal contributions, the latter with a ringing voice that was as easily heard in the House for Mozart as it now comes across on disc. At the time I found his pronunciation as much reminiscent of Hungarian as of a Slavic language; on re-hearing that did not strike me as a concern anymore. The orchestra accompanies Nylund in her Song to the Moon like liquid silver, like a most gentle part from a Richard Strauss opera. The buttery trumpet is a delight.

Granted, Renée Fleming in the Mackerras studio recording (Decca) is more on-the-nose gorgeous and lavish—that is, if you don’t mind the expressive Flemingisms: those short, “pressurized” effects that make up her unique, heavily romantic, and vibrato-rich phrasing. None of that with Nylund. Dramatically, she (with just the slightest hint of silvery flatness) or a particularly fresh-voiced Gabriela Beňačková (Neumann/Supraphon) sound lighter and more believable, both wonderful and emotional without being overly sentimental.

Now, there is a good deal of stage noise, stomping, panting, heavy breathing, laughing and the like—enough to turn off those who are allergic to it, but potentially adding to the drama for everyone else. For those and anyone especially keen on hearing this music played about as well as can be imagined, this could be the reference recording of Rusalka, alongside the aforementioned Neumann.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Neumann, Beňačková (Supraphon)

  • Camilla Nylund, Anna Prohaska, Stephanie Atanasov (soprano); Piotr Beczała (tenor); Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano); Alan Held (bass-baritone); Daniel Schmutzhard (baritone), et al.
  • Vienna State Opera Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst


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