Rusalka is simply too good an opera to have waited until 2012 for its first staging by the Royal Opera. Dvorak’s fairy tale about the water nymph who falls in love with a prince, with tragic consequences for them both, contains gorgeous music which pits the pastoral idyll of Rusalka’s lakeside world – all Bohemia’s woods and fields – against the formal world of the prince’s court. Naturally, many directors will wish to conduct a psychological exploration into the dark side of the plot and Kasper Holten’s introduction in the programme talks of ‘demonic aspects of our existence’, nightmares and the subconscious. This production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revived here by Samantha Seymour, was first seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. Ultimately, if it was convincing psycho-drama that was required, then the Royal Opera spectacularly failed to pick the right production, for 2008 also saw the premiere of Martin Kušej’s Munich staging which is dramatically superior on every count, though I dare say the booing from the first night audience would have been even more vociferous.
Eyes closed, this was a musically glorious evening, marked by the sensational debut of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a bundle of energy in the pit, who coaxed some sumptuous string playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and was alive to every nuance of Dvorak’s miraculous score. There were fleeting moments of imprecision from the brass, but the courtly dances of Act II had such pomp and vigour, the lakeside splashing of the three wood nymphs such sparkle, that such lapses are entirely forgivable, unlike the staging.
In set and costumes designs by Barbara Ehnes and Anja Rabes, Rusalka and her wood nymph sisters seem to inhabit a sordid underwater bordello, looking for all the world like a sauna furnished with tacky sofas and scarlet curtains. The vast expanses of wood provided ample space on which to project video imagery of their watery world; pondskaters and water-lilies glided by and in Rusalka’s ‘Song to the Moon’ – the one bit of the score everyone knows – Chris Kondek’s video teased us into thinking that the moon was just nudging into view, only for it to turn out to be a jellyfish floating past. The staging was riddled with problems, chiefly down to an ability from the directors to decide how deeply and darkly they wished to explore. Rusalka plays with a fluffy toy cat in the opening scene, which transforms into the witch Jezibaba’s cat later on in ‘human-in-cat-costume’ mode. This confused fairy tale with pantomime as the cat pawed Rusalka, clawing at her tail, waving a hairdryer at her and stomping moodily across the stage, inducing nervous audience laughter. By far its best incarnation was in Act III, when a real cat was used instead, wisely tethered to a sofa (think of the feline fiasco of Il barbiere’s premiere!).
I had noticed what looked like the old prompt box back in the pit at the start of the evening. It turned out to be a means of entrance and exit for Rusalka and Vodník (the Water Goblin) to and from their watery world down below. Rusalka emerges, mermaid tail thrashing wildly, while Vodník graces a pair of flippers. At least the directors didn’t give him a snorkel. Jezibaba is a bible-bashing, pill-popping old bag lady and brothel madam to the three wood nymphs, while Vodník is a world-weary alcoholic. It’s not an attractive world. Yet the prince’s world is no different, using the same set, but tacky white baby grand piano and neon cross replacing the sofas and coffee tables. The only fixture and fitting to remain constant is a white marble water feature of – you guessed it – The Little Mermaid, until Vodník smashes it during Act II, probably the dramatic high point of this confused production. Rusalka stabs herself, presumably to death, so that it’s her shade that greets the prince at the denouement, her kiss killing him before she disposes of his body down the pit shaft, an ending which failed to move me at all, where it should be devastating.
There was much to admire in the singing, not least from Camilla Nylund in the title role, who was making her Royal Opera debut. She performed the role in Salzburg and her pleasing lyric soprano was most welcome, especially the note of longing she struck in her ‘Song to the Moon’. Dramatically, I felt her Act I performance suffered from ‘being given silly things to do’ by the directors, but she conveyed Rusalka’s confusion at the human world as a fish out of water (ahem) convincingly, especially given that one of Jezibaba’s conditions laid down when transforming her into a human is that she must remain mute before him. Nylund’s wide-eyed incomprehension was palpable as her illusions were shattered. The Rusalka of fellow Finn Kristine Opolais in Munich was even finer, both vocally and interpretatively, but Nylund is hampered by this production.
Alan Held also transferred from the Salzburg performances. His Vodník was extremely well sung, his firm bass-baritone dominating the stage. He clambered about the prince’s palace awkwardly and had an Alberich-like lasciviousness in his by-play with the wood nymphs. His Act II aria lamenting Rusalka’s fate was poignantly delivered and he largely struck a sympathetic (if pathetic) figure. Agnes Zwierko’s Jezibaba was in ripe mezzo voice, if acting a rather hammy pantomime witch.
The Wagnerian aspects of Dvorak’s score are never more noticeable than in the challenging tenor writing he gives to his Prince. Bryan Hymel sang quite superbly, especially in Act III where he was in thrilling voice. His Prince was a little stiff and awkward – I didn’t believe in his infatuation with Rusalka any more than I detected any sexual tension with Petra Lang’s vampish Foreign Princess – but his singing did reach the ecstatic. Lang was in imperious voice and made for a decent contrast to Nylund’s warmer, more lyric sound.
The three wood nymphs were all cast from the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and were all excellent, conveying a sense of mischief from the off. Anna Devin was especially affecting in the Act III trio, but Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte were both in fine voice too. There were hints of sexual abuse between the Gyula Orendt’s gamekeeper and Ilse Eerens’ kitchen boy, though these are handled rather better by Kušej in Munich. The choral guests in Act II were fine, their off-stage contributions during Vodník’s warnings beautifully balanced.
The last time I saw Rusalka staged was at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, conducted by Gunter Neuhold and with Angeles Blancas Gulin in the title role. It was simply directed by Ludek Golat whilst retaining a sense of the natural world. However low-budget, it was inevitably more moving than this cold staging served up by Wieler and Morabito.
This isn’t the first time the opera has been heard at Covent Garden. In 2003, the Royal Opera gave two concert performances, conducted by the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras and starring Renée Fleming, who made it very much a signature role. A series of concert performances may well have been preferable to what was served up last night by means of the opera’s first staging in the House. Close your eyes and live the concert experience and you’ll enjoy a musically superb evening. Eyes wide open, it’s a shocker. For an even more controversial, yet far more involving visual experience, head to Munich.
Photographs © Clive Barda