Dvorak: Rusalka

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Rusalka
PERFORMER: Cheryl Barker, Rosario La Spina, Bruce Martin, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Anne-Marie Owens, Sarah Crane, Taryn Fiebig; Opera Australia Chorus; Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: Chandos CHAN 10449(3)
It’s a pity this isn’t one of Chandos’s English-language recordings – suprisingly, given its entirely English-speaking cast. There’s catalogue room for such a Rusalka, adding dramatic immediacy for Anglophone audiences, as the interesting ENO DVD demonstrates. The more so, as it would have given this live recording an extra edge against powerful competitors, notably Mackerras (Decca) with Renée Fleming and Neumann’s warmly idiomatic version with Gabriela Benacková. Against these superb Rusalkas, Barker sounds a less than ideal water-nymph. Her Czech sounds natural enough, and her large, edgy voice conveys Rusalka’s desperation effectively, but displays too little sweetness and vulnerability and too much vibrato, notably in Song to the Moon. Martin’s powerful Watersprite, baritonal but dark, spares us the wobble that besets Czech exponents such as Eduard Haken, but sounds less at ease in the language. Likewise La Spina, Australian-born but authentically Latin-sounding: he’s lyrical enough, but often seems on the verge of yelling. Much more at home is Anne-Marie Owens, adding Jezibaba’s sinister-comic witchery to her gallery of weird roles. The Gamekeeper and Turnspit, thankfully uncut, deliver their byplay enthusiastically, as do the faintly manic Woodnymphs and Whitehouse’s ripe Princess, but the overall feeling just isn’t coherent enough. Hickox, though, conducts with real theatrical warmth, slightly heavier-handed than Mackerras, and less mercurial in the powerful dance rhythms, but more sprightly than Neumann. This is a performance you’d enjoy more in the theatre.