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Antonin Dvorak's 'Rusalka' is a lovely opera, if not quite one of the all-time greats.
It is best known for the beautiful soprano aria "Song to the Moon", a favourite in the soprano repertoire and sung in recitals, auditions and competitions everywhere, and to a lesser extent Vodnik the Water Gnome's Act 2 aria, but the opera generally should be heard and seen in its entirety more. While slight, like a lot of fairy tales (some people have likened 'Rusalka' to a darker version of 'The Little Mermaid' and that's pretty apt, the story atmospherically sucks you right in and has a ethereally charming quality to it complete with an affecting ending. And the music is stunning, those two arias are the highlights but the whole score is enchanting, being very characteristic of his Slavonic dances and nationalistic folk tunes and at times like a symphony set to words.
'Rusalka' has a good DVD competition, with all the performances available being very worthwhile, but while the modern stagings have worked surprisingly well on the most part to me 'Rusalka' works better and has more magic when traditionally staged. This Petr Weigl film sadly isn't on DVD, but it should be. To me it is one of his better opera films, his best will always be 'Eugene Onegin' though (this said all his opera films are worth watching, his weakest 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' still being better despite its flaws than a lot of opera productions put on today), and if and when it ever got put out on DVD it would be a very strong contender for first choice.
Weigl's films always look wonderful, and his 'Rusalka' is one of his most visually beautiful. Its very naturalistic look is a wonder to behold, the exquisite rustic scenery has a grandeur without being stuffy or gaudy, the costumes are traditional and appropriately fairy-tale-like, especially Rusalka's and the lighting is rich in colour and heavy in atmosphere. The film is gorgeously photographed too. His direction shows how much of a talent he had for directing opera, there is the typical elegance and sensuality and he gets the emotion of every scene across brilliantly, the ending is unspeakably moving here.
Unlike a good deal of stage directors today, he doesn't over-clutter or over-modernise. Instead he tells a simple but lovely story simply and sensitively yet with nothing appearing static or uninvolved. He also understands the spirit of the opera better than any of those whose productions are available on DVD (with me, I was taken to another world and it felt like a dream that one doesn't wish to wake up from).
Musically, the film excels just as much. The orchestra play with sprightliness and much depth, with the shimmering strings, biting and expressive woodwinds and blazing brass. The choral work is expressive and well-balanced, as well as sounding great, the opening chorus being almost bell-like in its clarity. Libor Pesek's conducting is sympathetic in "Song to the Moon" and Vodnik's aria, while also alert in the Czech dance-like rhythms. The scenes with Jezhibaba has a great sense of understated foreboding.
Performances dramatically are very well suited to the roles and come over very well, while the singing is exemplary. Magda Vásáryová is a luminous and expressive Rusalka, with the right sense of other-worldliness. She also excels in still making Rusalka interesting when completely mute in Act 2, which is not an easy task. Gabriela Benacková, in her youthful prime, is in glorious voice and sings a very poignant and sincere "Song to the Moon". Milan Knazko's Prince is ardent and handsome yet he is just as believable being cold and passionate in Act 2. Peter Dvorsky, also sounding pleasantly youthful, sounds sweet-toned and honeyed, with great musicality and phrasing, but also sounds comfortable and un-constricted in the heavier moments.
Premysl Kocí is an imposing Vodnik, and looks incredible in his heavy make-up and costume. There is a playfulness, sincerity and scary intensity in his acting, which is neither over-egged or underplayed. Dubbing him is the noble, warm-sounding Ondrej Malachovský, who sings his aria very expressively and movingly. Jaroslava Adamová's Jezhibaba is wonderfully formidable with a nice impishness at times. Libuse Márová's rich chesty voice booms thrillingly, if slightly edgy on top (which isn't an issue actually because most of the role is quite low in her register and she sounds wonderful when low or in low middle). Bozidara Turzonovová mocks and schemes very effectively, some may say she lacks subtlety and nuance but blame that on the Foreign Princess role not her. Milada Subrtová gives a good account of the singing.
All in all, operatic fairy tale beauty. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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