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.