Held, Alan


RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Camilla Nylund, Petra Lang, Byran Hymel, Agnes Zwierko, Alan Held, Daniel Grice, Gyula Orendt, Ilse Eerens, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard, Justina Gringyte | Covent Garden, 27 February 2012

It’s somewhat surprising that Dvořák’s gorgeous Lyric Fairytale opera Rusalka has never been performed before at Covent Garden. One hundred and eleven years after its composition, its February 2012 premiere at the Royal Opera House was therefore long overdue, but under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin it was at least a fine introduction to the musical qualities of the work. The far from traditional stage production however - premiered at Salzburg in 2008 and revived here with many of the original cast - without necessarily detracting from the work, certainly confused the audience about the intentions of the piece, the directors attracting a fair share of booing on the opening night performance.

The intentions of the work and its source in European folklore - notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid may not be easily apparent other than it being merely a fairytale, but even on that level there is a richness of imagery and some typical themes in such work on the corruption of innocence, particularly in the context of the destruction of the purity of nature by the actions of humanity. It’s also a tragic love story of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince in the woods and wants to become human. Escaping from the tyranny of the water goblin, with the help of a witch in the woods, she manages to grow legs and appears as a beautiful but mute vision before the prince hunting in the woods. Unable to cope with the complex and inconstant nature of human beings, Rusalka however finds herself banished from her sisters and home, unable to fit into the human world either, and ultimately cursed to live in a limbo state between them.

Rusalka

Quite how the production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito came to be set in what looked like a brothel then and whatever intentions were behind this choice were unclear, but it’s not the first time that the opera has been subjected to a radical reworking. Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Rusalka for the Bavarian State Opera managed to graft the story of young girls being held captive in a dank cellar and abused by a Josef Fritzl-like water goblin quite successfully onto the work’s theme of the corruption of innocence, finding in Rusalka’s dilemma a parallel to the profound psychological damage that abused women in captivity must endure for the rest of their lives. There would appear to be something similar attempted with this production, but its muddled intentions were far less coherent and nowhere near so successfully or powerfully seen through to the fullness of their dark intent.

The key to understanding the production’s concept comes perhaps in its treatment of the Rusalka’s three wood nymphs. Reflecting Rusalka’s innocence of the fact that she is growing up in a brothel - the set dressed with lurid colours and red curtains - in Act 1 the three semi-naked figures in transparent dresses writhe around like exotic creatures of a young girl’s imagination, but it’s only after leaving her home - losing her mermaid tail and literally learning to stand on her own two feet - and having been subjected herself to the acts and whims of men, that the young woman’s illusions are shattered. In Act 3 then, the three “nymphs” are seen more for what they really are, dressed far more conventionally (albeit still in theatrical fantasy terms in unbelievably skimpy outfits rather than with any sense of naturalism) as cheap prostitutes. The scales have fallen from Rusalka’s eyes and, no longer able to return to the world of childhood innocence, the idea of living in a world with this knowledge becomes intolerable.

Rusalka

That’s one interpretation - the best I can come up with - but its manner of expression in the production is far from consistent, mixing this stylised theatrical realism with pantomime-like fairytale imagery, often to bizarre effect. Rusalka quite literally has a mermaid fish tail at the start, which is removed from her by the witch Jezibaba’s giant person-in-a-big-furry-costume black cat familiar. The revolving stage set with its red curtains is asked to stand-in for a variety of locations and the fit isn’t always good, the imagery and mix of concepts proving rather confusing. I’m not sure where the religious elements and use of neon crosses come into the work, although perhaps it views religious intolerance and hypocrisy as being antithetical to Rusalka’s pure and natural paganism.

Regardless of how it’s interpreted, the progression of the storyline and the impact of Rusalka’s dilemma still comes through, expressed principally and convincing by a strong performance from the Royal Opera House orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. They captured the Wagnerian romanticism of the work rather more successfully however than the folk rhythms that Dvořák beautifully blends into the opera, coming across a little too aggressively in such places. It was the quality of the singing however that carried the work through in spite of the peculiarities of the production. Camilla Nylund’s performance and delivery were flawless, meeting not only the technical demands of the singing, but injecting the right note of wistful romanticism into Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” aria, and a sense of distraught confusion at the harsh reality of being a human that leads to her tragic fate. Bryan Hymel was equally as emotive in his delivery of the rather more human failings of the Prince, his singing strong and resonant.

There were moreover no weak elements even in the secondary characters with Petra Lang a formidable foreign princess, Agnes Zwierko compelling as the witch Jezibaba and Alan Held a strong Water Goblin. Particularly impressive however were the Rhinemaiden-like figures of the three wood nymphs, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte. This was consequently a solid performance of Rusalka, exceptionally well-sung by a strong cast, even if the production didn’t always capture the lyricism of this beautiful work in the orchestration or the stage direction.

SalomeRichard Strauss - Salome

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011 | Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte | Arthaus

It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.

In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.

Salome

It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.

In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.

Salome

The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.