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Ales Briscein

revizoronline.com Kristóf Csengery
The title of this review is not an obscene gust, but the witch Ježibaba’s magic spell from Rusalka, which could be heard during the concerts of the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer at the Palace of Arts.

Even the most dedicated fans of Brahms were occasionally tempted by Wagner’s spirit at the end of the 19th century. How does Antonín Dvořák’s fairy-tale opera entitled Rusalka, first premiered in 1901, begin? Three wood sprites tease the water goblin, who talks about the treasures hidden in the depths of the lake. I would be surprised if there were opera fans who wouldn’t immediately think of the first scene of The Rhine Gold! The similar opening might be a coincidence only, but it is conceivable that Dvořak knowingly made a flippant remark to the fans of Wagner: oh you fools, your idol is not the only who can do that. The key moment of the opera’s final outcome, the mythical “Erlösung”, is, however, more important than the opening rhyme on the surface: Rusalka gives the rueful prince a fatal kiss, salves his bad conscience, and redeems him – the prince also redeems Rusalka while kissing, who thus ceases to be an outcast and can return to her fellow people. Redemption in death: that is indeed the “old Klingsor’s” way of thinking (as Wagner was called by Debussy).

Nevertheless, there is no other sign of the impact of Richard I on Rusalka; if we do not count the vile audacity when the protagonist is present on the stage during the middle movement, but hardly says a word (I marvel that prima donnas accept the humiliating role of the “schweigsame Frau”). Inspired by Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Dvořak composed a normal, standard romantic opera with an international musical language typical towards the end of the 19th century, which nevertheless included many Czech national and folk elements as the major source of sensual attraction. Iván Fischer has been a fan and expert of these elements for a long time, he does not conduct his orchestra in vain when performing the last two symphonies and Slavonic Dances by the composer since the beginning, and did not compile the classical music material of last year’s Európai hidak – Bridging Europe festival in the autumn focusing on Dvořák in particular within Czech music as a whole, in vain, putting on notable performances of rarely-heard pieces like Requiem, Piano Concerto in G minor and Legend No. 10, Op. 59. The essence of his concept is aligned to the principle of “getting things done the right way”: a Dvořák opera must feature Czech and Slovak singers, and since you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, the choir should also come from the Czech Republic – because they know the language, they have the piece at their fingertips, and know the ins and outs of how it should be sung, just like Hungarians are familiar with the performing conventions of Erkel operas or Bluebird.

Today every theatre-goer and film fan knows how critical the casting is for a production, it is by no accident that the casting director is included in the credits of big-budget films. It is a very creative work where one should keep their head because the quality and inner balance of the production depends on who takes the roles and how we combine things. Iván Fischer is a great casting director, he has proved it on several occasions – just like this time. One of the secrets of Rusalka’s success was that all the eight singers, singing five major and six smaller roles, were educated – and of course the cast on the stage at the Palace of Arts was also up to par. It was a high standard by international comparison: only beautiful and polished voices, cultured shaping of musical parts, nuanced recitation – and just the right amount of acting as allowed and required by the concert-like performance without any set or costume. Personally, I felt that in terms of vocal format and powerful personality the contribution of Jolana Fogašová (Ježibaba and Foreign princess) and Peter Mikuláš was more significant than the movingly nice and reserved Rusalka played by Pavla Vykopalová or Aleš Briscein’s character as the prince. The classical Song to the Moon from the first movement did not have an awe-inspiring effect this time, but rather blended into the dramatic context. The role of the three mermaids was sung by Lucie Silkenová, Alžběta Poláčková and Michaela Kapustová in a fresh, playful and light manner, the latter even played the breeches role (or part) of the skittish Turnspit, while the Hunter and the Gamekeeper in one person was embodied by Jiří Brückler. The sound of the Czech Philharmonic Choir from Brno (choirmaster: Petr Fiala) was full and rich, and Iván Fischer brought the partiture alive by conducting the excellent Budapest Festival Orchestra at a standard unchanged for decades, with meticulous care and full dedication to the melodiousness and flowing sensuality of this exceptionally beautiful music.