Rusalka


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.

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.

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.