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.