RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Stefan Herheim, Myrtò Papatanasiu, Pavel Cernoch, Annalena Persson, Renée Morloc, Ekaterina Isachenko, Julian Hubbard, André Grégoire, Marc Coulon | La Monnaie, Internet Steaming, 14 and 16th March 2012

Watching Stefan Herheim’s production of Dvořák’s 1901 opera for La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels (performed in March 2012 and broadcast via their internet streaming service), I began to think that we are getting to a point now where it would be something of a novelty to see Rusalka done as a straight fairytale. From Martin Kušej’s brilliant envisioning for Munich of the water nymph as an abused young woman held in captivity in an underground basement to the recent debacle of the production for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which placed Rusalka in a brothel, there’s a predictable familiarity now to seeing Rusalka as an abused woman at the hands of men. Stefan Herheim’s production then may seem to adhere to this modern revisionism of the role by casting her as a prostitute, but by altering the perspective of the work to that of the Water Goblin, her “captor”, gives an interesting new view on the central theme of the corruption innocence.

This Rusalka is considerably different in temperament then from how Kušej and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito view the character, or indeed from a traditional view of the water nymph. Here, on a street corner, on a remarkably lifelike stage set that could be a street corner on any middle or eastern European city (albeit with an English bobby on the beat), the streetwalking Rusalka is all glitter and glamour in the eyes of the old man, Vodník, who wants to possess her and keep her for his own pleasure – a femme fatale who, in the end, will drive him to commit a violent crime of passion. This Rusalka is no innocent – she’s street-smart and wise to the dangers that her lifestyle and clients like the old man represent and she dreams of a better life out of the dark world she lives in, but is she really cut out for the refinement of the world above? It’s this inability to deal with the disappointment that her unrealistic idealisation of what a normal life and love means, certainly as far as men are concerned, that is to be her tragedy here.

Rusalka

There’s quite a leap involved in making Rusalka a prostitute, and characteristically for this director – like his recent Eugene Onegin for De Nederlandse Opera – there’s a great deal of complexity to how the narrative is structured in order to make this idea work and a significant altering of traditional perspective. Perhaps surprisingly however, the director’s approach of actually listening to the music and not just the libretto would seem to justify and bear out his approach here. The musical theme for the Water Goblin is indeed threaded through the work as a leitmotif, and it gives Herheim the justification to consider how women are looked upon and objectified by men from a modern perspective, as well as from the older tradition.

This Rusalka consequently may not be the most flattering or politically correct view of women – witches, prostitutes and nuns feature, many of them with exaggerated female figures in quite obscene body suits, the nuns even taking part in an orgy – and there is a great deal of violence enacted against them in brutal stabbings, but it’s precisely through this kind of altered perspective that the director intends to show an idealisation that the reality doesn’t live up to. It’s fascinating then that Herheim does indeed manage to get to the root of Rusalka’s tragedy through this mirrored perspective – the old man/water goblin present on the stage as a witness almost throughout – as it is by being the object of the desires and ideals of men that Rusalka is prevented (kept silent by a curse) from expressing who she wants to be herself.

Rusalka

You have to work hard however to get to this realisation as there is a bewildering array of imagery on the stage and considerable twists to characterisation that will be difficult to disentangle even for someone very familiar with the work. This includes a wife for the Vodník, who is not in the original libretto, who has a non-singing role, although she is played by the same singer (Annalena Persson) who is the Foreign Princess. While this and some other doubling of roles may initially be confusing, it reflects the director’s view of mirroring reality with the fantasy “fairytale” view of world that is fabricated in the mind of the old man/water goblin. At the very least however, the sheer effort of trying to fit it all together commands attention and forces the audience to reconsider what the work is actually about. Unless you think Rusalka is just a lyric fairytale and is perfectly fine in that form without all the psychological probing.

Also commanding is the spectacle on the stage itself, which really is quite extraordinary. This production (originally staged for the first time in 2008 as a co-production between La Monnaie and Oper Graz) really is quite the most brilliant use of stage-craft I’ve seen in an opera for a long time. Some of it seems abstract and inconsistent with the themes, but you’ll probably find it fits in some kind of weird way, and is certainly never anything less than dazzling and thought-provoking. The street scene, designed by Heike Scheele, is remarkably realistic but, in keeping with the fantasy/reality theme, elements explode out and upward, as if you were looking at a children’s pop-up book – the counter of the corner café extending out into the street, an advertising pillar appearing out of the ground, on which Rusalka is perched as if on a pedestal, with a mermaid tail dipped inside the pillar. If you still can’t make sense of it all – it took me quite a little while to come around to the idea and the concept – the immensely powerful coup de theatre of the conclusion at least should bring the full impact and realisation of the meaning of the work in Herheim’s vision of its present day applicaiton as well as its relevance to Dvořák’s original work.

Rusalka

With performances as good as that of the principals cast here moreover, you’ll happily put up with some shock and befuddlement. As Rusalka and the Prince, Myrtò Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are just magnificent. This Rusalka isn’t the usual wide-eyed innocent, but Papatanasiu nonetheless manages to bring across the vulnerability of her character as well as the inner strength of personality that seeks to express herself within this world dominated by the desires of men. She does that in her acting performance and she does it in her singing, and most impressively. The Prince can also be somewhat of a cipher, so it’s wonderful likewise to see the role sung so well and with some consideration of the duality of his nature. He can’t help himself when it comes to the beautiful vision in white that is Rusalka, or the attraction of the Foreign Prince who appeals to his baser desires. He’s only a man after all. There’s consequently steel in Cernoch’s voice as well as a wonderful lyricism.

Both Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are both powerful enough singers in their own right – Willard White as the Water Goblin isn’t quite up to their level, but he is a strong presence nonetheless – but conductor Ádám Fischer ensures that they are never overpowered by the orchestra. The performance of the orchestra can perhaps feel a little restrained, but not unexpectedly, it seemed to capture the post-Wagnerian Romanticism of the piece well. Admittedly however, while the image quality is superb, the audio track on an internet stream wasn’t clear enough to hear the detail as well as it would sound on a High Definition Blu-ray disc. Superbly directed for the screen, this however is one spectacular production that certainly merits a wider HD release.

The internet stream of Rusalka at La Monnaie is available for viewing only until the 26th April (with French and Dutch subtitles only). The next production to be shown is Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks to my Eyes on 12 April, which will be available for viewing for 21 days.