August 2011


Pique DamePyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Michael Boder, Gilbert Deflo, Misha Didyk, Lado Ataneli, Ludovic Tézier, Ewa Podés, Emily Magee, Francisco Vas, Alberto Feria, Mikhail Vekua, Kurt Gysen | Opus Arte

Adapted from a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is something of a ghost story, but its roots lie firmly within the Russian tradition, and those aspects are emphasised brilliantly, with a few additional extensions to meet the demands of Grand Opera in Tchaikovsky’s version, first performed in 1890. The booklet notes in the Blu-ray release of this 2010 production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona also note the influence of Dostoevsky’s writing, and while that deeper psychology isn’t fully brought out in the performance of Misha Didyk, who plays Hermann with no greater subtlety than near foaming at the mouth, eye-rolling madness, the work itself certainly taps into a certain fatalistic Russian quality seen also in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler (made into a fine opera by Prokofiev that complements Pique Dame well). It’s not so much that this relates to the rush of gambling or the acquisition of money, but on the extravagant romantic notion of its main characters only being able to live life to the fullest by throwing oneself into the hands of fate and risking everything – a circumstance that would, of course, lead to the early death of the author of The Queen of Spades himself in a duel.

That single-minded determination to win at any cost drives Hermann, who is unlucky in gambling and in love, discovering that the mysterious woman he has been observing and preparing to approach – even though she is clearly above his station – has just become engaged to Prince Yeletsky. Hermann however has heard the stories about Lisa’s aged mother, the Countess, once known as the Venus of Moscow, and now known as the Queen of Spades. Legend has it that she has learned the secret desired by gambler of three winning cards. She has shared this secret with two others and cannot reveal it to a third – but Hermann becomes obsessed with the myth and is determined to discover the mystery of the three cards. The interest of this intense young officer in her hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lisa however, so even though surprised by his appearance on her balcony one night, she resolves to help him – with inevitably tragic consequences for all involved.

Tchaikovsky’s music is designed to impress, the period of Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the romantic Russian nature of the piece matched by a tone of splendour, stateliness and order as well as the hint of underlying madness that struggles beneath the surface of the lives of these characters. The full range of the situation and the emotions of the characters is expressed in beautiful duets, in the chorus of the St Petersburg society, and in the tormented arias of Hermann and his obsessive refrain about the mystery of the three cards – but, playing to the conventions of Grand Opera, there is room for Tchaikovsky to introduce additional colour and take those sentiments into the medium of a Mozartian pastorale in Act II. There’s a certain coldness and calculation involved in the composition, as I often find with Tchaikovsky, but it’s well suited to the character of the work here.

The staging for the Liceu by Gilbert Deflo, at least superficially matches the splendour and opulence of the work, the classicism of the storyline and the tone of Tchaikovsky’s work, but it doesn’t really manage to delve into the deeper themes raised in the opera. Where it does try to make the effort, it’s rather unimaginative and awkward, using black screens to block off parts of the backgrounds or the whole of it, isolating Hermann in his madness from the rest of society (while also serving to allow quick changes to be made to the set behind the screens). There’s a similar lack of imagination in the characterisation of Hermann on the part of Misha Didyk, who wanders in a daze across the set with limited acting ability, a wide-eyed madman consumed with his own inner torment and obsessions. Didyk’s steely tenor doesn’t allow for any subtler range of expression in his singing either, hard and constricted, spitting out the harsh Russian consonants with admirable force and expressiveness, but it’s limited in terms of musicality and nuance.

If one isn’t looking for anything deeper out of the operas themes, this serves reasonably well however, and it’s a strong enough performance on that level alone. It certainly lends an edge to his encounter with Countess (sung with an equally dramatic edge by Ewa Podés) that leads to her death as well as in his reencounter with her ghost on the bridge (which is hauntingly staged using simple smoke and lighting effects), and it’s also effective in the magnificent duet scene with Lisa – a strong performance also from Emily Magee – that in turn leads to her doom (which could have been better staged). There’s a lot to like about the singing, the performances (the orchestra, conducted by Michael Boder deliver a fine account of the score), and a fairly traditional staging that at least has a coherence and consistency with the production, but a little more subtlety in the singing and imagination in the staging along the lines of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, could have brought much more out of this particular opera.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds fine, with a clear, sharp and colourful transfer, and good sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There are no extra features on the disc other than a Cast Gallery, but a brief introduction to the work and a synopsis is provided in the enclosed booklet.

ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | Opus Arte

Dealing with a low-brow subject, treating it to an outlandish and tasteless staging, with crude language and bad-taste humour, there is a danger that Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage about the former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007, could be accused of making Eurotrash out of American Trash, but the language and the staging befits the tone of its subject. The barrage of rhyming couplets in the libretto from Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) may clearly signal their intention to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, but at the same time there is wit and pathos here in a libretto that actually manages to cut through the niceties directly to harsh crude reality of the circumstances of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, unpalatable though that might be to the average opera-going audience. Benjamin Britten and particularly Billy Budd comes to mind in the use of language, in its subject – which is also about a kind of loss of innocence on a bigger level than just the personal – and in Turnage’s score, which also adopts his usual jazz and American influences, successfully finding the right tone for each occasion.

The colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs by Richard Jones also adopt the right tone with plenty of eye-catching sights not commonly seen in an opera house, including a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with artificial breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles. The decision to present the opera as if it were a reality-TV show in which a chorus of TV hosts interview Anna Nicole Smith, already dead but looking back over her life and tracing the path from smalltown girl to media celebrity that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke and it imbues the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The tone darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in Smith’s life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, does well to allow the music score to assert its presence and not be overshadowed by the spectacle or the libretto. Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvellous in the title role, and well supported by Gerald Finlay and Alan Oke. As more of a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is not really tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sings exceptionally well and manages to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing the performance to descend into parody. Whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – if indeed there is anything deeper to be drawn from its subject – is questionable, but Anna Nicole demonstrates nonetheless that opera can still be a vital artform to address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that can connect with a modern audience.

On Blu-ray from Opus Arte, the opera – opening with a legal disclaimer that it is “not intended to be an actual factual depiction of any person” – looks every bit as bold as it should, the striking colours deeply saturated, with strong blacks and contrasts, and a good level of detail. This often looks just stunning, and it is well filmed, picking out the singers at the right moments, while also allowing the overall impact of the set to be appreciated. The audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are also effective in allowing the detail of the musical arrangements to come through. Subtitles are in English (so you can check that they actually sang what you thought they sang but couldn’t quite believe), French, German and Spanish. Aside from a Cast Gallery, the only other extra on the disc is a brief Production Report (8:25), introduced by Pappano, which nonetheless covers the development of the opera well with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.

JenufaLeoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2009 | Ivor Bolton, Stéphane Braunschweig, Amanda Roocroft, Miroslav Dvorský, Nikolai Schukoff, Deborah Polaski, Mette Ejsing, Marta Ubieta, Károly Szemerédy, Miguel Sola, Marta Mathéu, María José Suárez | Opus Arte

One of the composer’s earliest works, from 1904, Janáček’s Jenůfa is a wonderful piece of work with a melodramatic but gritty story that has its roots in realism and traditional popular folklore, and it has music to match with a lush sweep of Wagnerian Romanticism, the punch of Slavic dance arrangements and a modern Strauss-like sensibility that ties the nature of the characters and their actions to identifiable but complex modern musical and speech tone patterns developed by Janácek. Unfortunately, this particular performance, recorded at the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2009, is for the most part not the most impressive means of experiencing one of the greatest operas of the early twentieth century.

It’s difficult from this production to grasp any sense of time, location or community sensibility that is so important in identifying the nature of Jenůfa’s dilemma. Jenůfa is in love with Števa and engaged to be married to him, despite his half-brother Laca being more devoted to the young woman, and perhaps a better match. When her stepmother Kostelnička publically delays the marriage until Števa gets his act together, she is unaware that Jenůfa is pregnant. The secret birth of a baby outside wedlock makes the marriage to Števa and the fate of Jenůfa more complicated to arrange, as does the scar on the young woman’s face accidentally left there by the jealous Laca, and despair over the turn of events drives Kostelnička to take matters into her own hands.

Although it does seem to improve considerably by the time we reach the powerful and climactic third act, the whole sense of fluidity and rhythm of the work and the all-important speech tones seem to be lost in the uneven tempo of Ivor Bolton’s conducting. It seems to limp from one scene to the next somewhat disjointedly, and it’s not until quite late in the performance that the conductor manages to bring the precision and dramatic tone required out of the orchestra. The staging by Stéphane Braunschweig is also inadequate and it’s not so much that the set is minimalist – each scene consisting of bare walls and one significant object in a spotlight to indicate location – as that there is little here to support mood or the dramatic action. Up until the final act, it’s a fairly anonymous staging, dark, with stark lighting on the characters, that doesn’t have the requisite impact and fails to draw the viewer into what is very much a story related to the community, as well as an interior journey.

The singing is good in all the principal roles, if not outstanding. There’s nothing here, for example, to create the kind of impression or investment in the roles that Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová achieve in their incredibly passionate and chilling renditions of Jenůfa and Kostelnička for the classic Charles Mackerras recording of this opera (although it is perhaps unfair to expect any live performance to match this). Amanda Roocroft however is a fine Jenůfa and Deborah Polaski an excellent Kostelnička, both of them growing into the roles (or perhaps it just took me a while to acclimatise to them), gathering intensity as the opera reaches the third act. Nikolai Schukoff and Miroslav Dvorský as rival half-brothers Števa and Laca, also give fine performances. None of them however are helped by the inadequacy of the staging or by the mediocre playing of the orchestra.

Something close to the real impact of the work is achieved by the time we get to the remarkably beautiful and poignant duet at the conclusion of the opera, but otherwise, this production succeeds only as far as making Jenůfa sound like an ordinary opera, when it’s really a work that has so much more to offer and deserves a lot better than this in terms of staging and performance. It’s not helped at all by the inadequate video transfer on the Blu-ray. The extremely dark stage (as is often the case in Teatro Real productions in my experience) scarcely looks better than standard-definition, with little detail and a highly contrasted image that exhibits lighting fluctuation and exposure variations. The image is somewhat juddery, and this isn’t helped by jerky camera work. The disc contains only a Cast and Synopsis, but there is a more detailed examination of how the music works alongside the drama in the accompanying booklet.

FalstaffGiuseppe Verdi - Falstaff

Glyndebourne, 2009 | Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Jones, Christopher Purves, Tassis Christoyannis, Dina Kuznetsova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Adriana Kučerová, Bülent Bezduz, Jennifer Holloway, Peter Hoare, Paolo Battaglia, Alasdair Elliott | Opus Arte

Richard Jones’ production of Falstaff for Glyndebourne in 2009 finds an appropriate updated setting for Verdi’s final opera (1893) – a delightful comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – in the quintessentially old-world ideal of the English countryside village of the immediate post-war years, populated by Bertie Wooster-style cads and scoundrels and mischievous ruddy-faced scamps out of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. Even the curtain drop has an embroidered-look landscape of Windsor castle to add to the sense of an ideal that may never have ever existed, an ideal that the aging knight John Falstaff mistakenly believes he embodies.

Fat, balding and gone to seed, propping up the bar at the Garter’s Arms, he believes he still incarnates everything that is noble and proud about old England, and mourns the passing of a time when men such as himself commanded respect and deference, (“There’s no more virtue, everything is in decline/ Time to go old John, go on your way/ Walk on until you die/ Then true manhood will have disappeared from this world”), and when the good ladies of the town would be flattered to receive his attentions. Undeterred by the reality of his situation, even by the burden that his servants have become, he sets out to woo two of Windsor’s merry wives, hoping to replenish his dwindling funds. Alas, poor John’s over-inflated idea of his charms makes him a laughing stock of the town.

Richard Jones set designs play perfectly on the image of this impossible ideal, recreating it as it would be in the minds of a modern audience who feel that the essence of Englishness and the nation itself is in decline – the country pub with the cat snoozing on the bar, the English country house with its cabbage garden, the old village street with bobbies on the beat, and a nearby wood for elves, fairies and sprites. The overall concept is sound, the sets impressively storybook larger-than-life, but there are numerous little details in the sets, in the costumes and in the characterisation that fits perfectly with this romanticised ideal.

Vladimir Jurowski, with the London Philharmonic, brings out Verdi’s magnificent score to perfection. This is Verdi on another register completely from his revolutions and melodramas, doing comedy with all the Italian dynamism of Rossini but with a subtlety of characterisation equal to the opera buffa of Mozart. The opera celebrates the underlying innocence, love and beauty that supports the poignant dream of an unachievable ideal, but it also cheekily acknowledges that the world would be a very dull place if it didn’t have characters like John Falstaff to stir up emotions and invigorate it with the spice of life. There are no show-stopping arias in Falstaff, but beautiful melodies and solo pieces that are fully integrated into the fabric of the score as a whole, Verdi’s pitching of mood, characterisation and drama absolutely impeccable and insightful.

Despite there being great scope and undoubtedly a great temptation to play this as straight farce, there is actually a great deal of subtlety in the singing and the performances here, particularly from Christopher Purves in a very convincing fat-suit. There’s no need to overplay when the libretto – derived from Shakespeare of course – and the score are so expressive, and no need to over-emphasise with showy singing, and all of the cast seem to be aware of this, delivering this particular Italian libretto with a proper sense of English reserve – even if the majority of the cast are not English.

The production looks and sounds terrific on this Opus Arte Blu-ray release. The bold sets look marvellous on the brightly-lit stage, but even in the night-time darkness of the final scene, there is excellent detail and colouration in the image. Audio tracks are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, and there is good detail and warmth of tone in both mixes. There are no extra features on the disc apart from a standard Cast listing and a narrated Synopsis.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Daniele Gatti, Sonja Frisell, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Stefan Kocán, Adam Laurence Herskowitz, Jennifer Check, Carlo Guelfi | Decca

Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It’s a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871. This return would herald a new style of opera that we would see from Verdi in his final works, one that is mindful of the innovations introduced by Wagner, but which still retains elements here of bel canto in an opera that is filled with memorable arias and melodies. Despite its setting and the use of exotic Oriental melodies – which really see Verdi at his most inventive and original – Aida is very much an Italian opera, and one that is thoroughly and recognisably a true Verdi opera.

Considering its origins and its setting – whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not – Verdi’s Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There’s no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it’s certainly interesting to see something different attempted) – this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven’t got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production – now over twenty years old – for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It’s a big production in every respect – and yes, I include the size of the singers in this – with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It’s unfortunately a little too static – an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production – particularly a traditional one at the Met – and really, you’d feel somewhat short-changed if it didn’t have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets) .

You won’t feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don’t know about his acting ability – there’s not much required here of Ramadès – but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.

Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met’s Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I’d have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Tomáš Hanus, Martin Kušej, Kristine Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Günther Grossböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß | Unitel Classica/C-Major

From the man who envisaged the Flying Dutchman as an asylum seeker in a 2010 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander for the Nederlandse Opera, cutting-edge opera director Martin Kušej reworks Dvořák’s dark fairy-tale Rusalka into a case of child abuse, where an innocent wood nymph and her sisters are victims of a Josef Fritzl-like Water Goblin. Evidently then, this production for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2010 is not one for the traditionalists. For anyone a bit more open minded to the greater potential of opera, this is an incredibly imaginative interpretation that gets right to the dark heart of the opera, and it’s sung magnificently by all the principal performers.

In the context in which it is presented, lines like “I’d like to leave her to escape from the depths/I want to become a human being/And live in the golden sunshine” take on an entirely new meaning when they are uttered by a young woman being held captive with her sisters in the basement and routinely abused by their father. Cut off from the outside world, it’s not surprising that they see their world differently, considering themselves wood nymphs and their father as a Water Goblin as a way to evade the reality of their situation. Could any sense of what these poor creatures endure be any more powerfully achieved than by such a production, where this abusive captor descends from the upper-level of the set down into the dark, dank cellar, where a group of young girls wait fearfully for his arrival, and have to deal with him forcing himself upon them?

Escaping from this dungeon, and faced with the reality of life outside the abusive circle that is the only kind of relationship she has even known, Rusalka is evidently profoundly traumatised and damaged by the experience, her “womanhood defiled”, and she remains mute and unable to communicate or function as any other human being. It destroys any chance of sustaining a normal relationship, and destroys her chance at happiness with the Prince who has discovered her in the woods. “I am cursed by you”, she accuses her abuser, and the words, the tone and the true depths of what this means takes on an incredibly sinister and infinitely more tragic edge when it is applied to real-life in this way and taken out of the realm of mere fairy-tale.

Rusalka

Is this a distortion of the original intentions of the opera, or does it get to the heart of what is already suggested in the fairy-tale story (and we all know the dark origins of such tales), and to the heart of what is there in the often sinister tone of Dvořák’s score itself? Even where there is a playful tone in the music and singing, this can also be played upon – and has been used often in opera in this way – for the additional emphasis that can be achieved when contrasting what is played and sung with what is actually shown. In most cases however, there is no need for such excuses, and it’s uncanny just how often the actual libretto and the music score chime in perfect accord with Kušej’s brilliant and powerful interpretation.

This radical staging allows for some incredibly powerful moments and shocking imagery. The scene where Rusalka totters like Bambi on her human legs, looking with wide-eyed innocence down the barrel of the Prince’s shotgun is absolutely breathtaking, Rusalka’s background of abuse only emphasising the distinction between their roles as hunter and prey, and the problems that this is going to create in any kind of relationship between them. This is echoed in another nightmare scene (really, this is not a production for lovers of Bambi) where bloody, skinned deer are ripped open and their entrails devoured by brides in wedding gowns.

It’s hard to argue that such interpretations have no place in opera when the power of the piece speaks for itself, when it shows an audience something of the world we live in today, tackling in a genuinely artistic and insightful way a subject that we would find hard to relate to or even come close to comprehending. One could question why not create a new opera to deal with such subjects rather than use Rusalka, but it’s hard to dispute that this production doesn’t give as much to Rusalka as it takes from it, using the power and an edge that is already there in the music, but taking it to a new level.

A lot of credit for this has to go to also to Tomáš Hanus, the Bayerische orchestra and the performers who all work together to help bring this off. Kristine Opolais, who has recently made a major impact in Covent Garden in a new production of Madama Butterfly, not only has the voice to carry this, but she has excellent acting ability also in a highly challenging role, and it makes all the difference here. Klaus Florian Vogt’s lyrical tenor should already be well-enough known and he not unexpectedly demonstrates a fine sensitivity as the Prince here, but the darker tones of Nadia Krasteva as the foreign princess and Günther Groissböck as the Water Goblin also make a lasting and unforgettable impression. This quality of interpretation ensures total fidelity to the intent of the opera as it was originally written.

There’s little to fault either with the presentation on Blu-ray. The image is clear and sharp with no significant issues, though some minor flutter can be detected in one scene. Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1.  The surround track is listed on the cover as DTS HD-MA 5.0, but this is incorrect, and there is definitely activity on the LFE channel (which isn’t even usually the case on most 5.1 mixes). The BD comes with a fine half-hour featurette on the production, featuring interviews with all the main contributors.