Dvorak: Rusalka

E-mail Print PDF

Fairy tales http://img221.imageshack.us/img221/3038/rusalkabluraycover.jpgusually have dark undercurrents – witches, wolves and wicked stepmothers destined to give children sleepless nights before eventually arriving at a Happily Ever After. There’s no happy ending to Rusalka, but the concept which director Martin Kušej has created is nightmarish in a way Dvorak wouldn’t have anticipated at all and will divide viewers of this 2010 production from the Bavarian State Opera. It is an opera ripe for reinterpretation; David Pountney’s Victorian nursery setting for English National Opera, a Freudian dreamscape exploring an adolescent Rusalka’s sexual awakening, works well, while Robert Carsen’s mirror imagery in Paris (with Renée Fleming in the title role) reflects the duality of Rusalka’s two worlds. I have nothing against updated relocations as long as they respect the composers’ intentions. With this in mind, I was less than enthusiastic to discover that Kušej turns the Water Goblin into a Josef Fritzl figure, who keeps Rusalka and her sisters trapped in a waterlogged basement while subjecting them to systematic sexual abuse.

Any pastoral magic is lost in this psycho -thriller. Rusalka sings her ‘Song to the Moon’ to a globe lamp before smashing it on the flooded basement. Jezibaba here becomes the Water Goblin’s booze-raddled wife and is complicit in what’s going on beneath the floorboards. Her witch’s ‘spell’ to transform Rusalka into human form consists of drying her with a towel and putting her into a dress and high heels, on which she totters off in search of her prince. Things further descend into Eurotrash territory in Act II with a corps de ballet (male and female) all in bridal dresses, dancing with skinned deer before feasting on their entrails. The white doe the Prince has been hunting is skinned on-stage, while the Forester’s nephew, the kitchen boy, is turned into a girl as part of another abusive, incestuous relationship. Designed by Martin Zehetgruber, the split set manoeuvres up to reveal the basement horrors, while a giant alpine mural dominates the Water Goblin’s dwelling. There are further deviations from the usual events in Act III, including a suicide and a murder. In the final scene, Rusalka and her sisters are in a mental asylum, through which a handcuffed Water Goblin is led, before the prince makes his way through the forest of beds.

Yet eagle-eyed readers may have spotted the four stars awarded this disc and will be questioning how this can be so. Put simply, as disturbing as Kušej’s concept is, and however distasteful it seems to frame an opera around the Amstetten/ Fritzl case, it is executed extremely well and the acting by all concerned is excellent. There is a very good bonus feature on the disc in which those involved in the production speak openly about the interpretation and its challenges. For Kušej, the opera is ‘about a profound desire for love’ and Rusalka’s relationship with the Water Goblin is an intense, complex one. Although an abusive father, he also protects her from a cruel outside world which rejects her. He sees Rusalka’s dilemma as being an inability to integrate with, or comprehend, an alien society in ‘the real world’, which is even more brutal than her dungeon, exploring her psychological trauma. The libretto has a number of double meanings which fit Kušej’s vision. ‘Are you sad down there, too?’ asks the Water Goblin in the opening scene, whilst groping Rusalka. The scenes with the skinning of the doe caused outrage, causing Kušej to muse that ‘it’s interesting that we’ve been showing a piece about child abuse and the whole discussion has been about a stupid doe onstage’.


Kristine Opolais gives an outstanding performance as Rusalka, which could well be described as career-defining. She renounced her Met debut (Musetta) to step into this Munich production after the withdrawal of Nina Stemme. Vocally, she might be considered a size too small for the role, especially in her lower register, but when her top opens out, it’s quite superb – her silvery lyric spinto riding Dvorak’s orchestration with ease, when required, while able to scale it down to a beautiful pianissimo. Her ‘Song to the Moon’ is captivating and remarkably poised given the cavorting and splashing around required by her director. Dramatically, Opolais is mesmerising, her acting subtly nuanced, from the fearful girl trapped in the basement to her incomprehension at the world around her. She eventually withdraws into a fish tank in Act II, in full bridal gown, while her final scene is tremendously moving. She talks movingly about the production, and singing in Czech, in the bonus feature. Seeing her performance here only makes me regret more that I didn’t get to see her Madama Butterfly as Covent Garden last summer.

Opolais is http://img806.imageshack.us/img806/1443/rusalkadvd3.jpgsupported by a uniformly fine cast. Klaus Florian Vogt offers a lighter, sweeter Prince than those used to hearing the likes of Ben Heppner in the famous Decca audio recording, even if he’s light on vocal heft in places. His declaration of love for Rusalka at the end of Act I is impressive. He cuts a dashing figure, even in white jeans(!), and offers an affecting, sincere final scene. The Foreign Princess is sung by the Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, displaying a mighty chest register alongside a fair bit of cleavage. There are times when she needs greater ease at the top, more easily negotiated by a soprano, but the distinction between her and Rusalka, vocally, is more apparent here. Her imperious air is perfect captured.


Günther Groissböck is the Water Goblin and admits to his difficulty playing a role normally viewed as a sympathetic one, but here so very differently portrayed. A firm-voiced bass, he sings his Act II lament for his daughter with great dignity, while Opolais dances with his double, indicating the two sides to this complex figure. Janina Baechle is Jezibaba, initially appearing as much as a victim as her daughters, but also presenting her dark side. Baechle’s strong mezzo is particularly effective in the scene where she hands the distraught Rusalka a knife, instructing her to kill the prince.


Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower and Okka von der Damerau make an especially fine trio of wood nymphs, as traumatised as Rusalka, especially in the final scene where they are like fish out of water in the asylum, playing with bottled water, pouring it over themselves in an attempt to conjure up their familiar watery environment. Taking their cue from Opolais, their acting is most moving. Ulrich Reß is a decent Forester and Tara Erraught a fine Kitchen Boy (Girl), the comparison between her situation and Rusalka’s well drawn.

Tomáš Hanus and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester remind one what a gorgeous, plush score Dvorak composed, in many ways Wagnerian, yet he never forces his singers to push unduly over such dense orchestration.

The quality of sound and picture on this blu-ray is exemplary. There is applause only at the ends of Acts I and II, with no shots of the pit. There are no curtain calls at the end; we just cut to scenes of rippling water and a list of credits, which seem entirely appropriate as we reflect on what we’ve just viewed.

Do you need to see this production? Absolutely. Will you like it? Next question…


Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Wilfried Hösl

Dvorak: Rusalka (C Major Blu-ray 706504)

Kristine Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Günther Groissböck, Janina Baechle, Nadia Krasteva, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, Okka von der Damerau, Ulrich Reß, Tara Erraught; Bayerisches Staatsorchester/ Tomáš Hanus; Director: Martin Kušej  192 minutes (Opera: 156 mins/ Bonus feature: 36 mins)


Last Updated ( Saturday, 15 September 2012 12:49 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at info@opera-britannia.com.

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Althoughhttp://img197.imageshack.us/img197/8908/gkdw.JPG he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this http://img14.imageshack.us/img14/7950/npze.jpgrecital was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now http://img543.imageshack.us/img543/5228/vu6o.jpgcast doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter