Described as a “lyric fairy tale”, this story is not Disney’s Little Mermaid but draws on much deeper, darker strands of central European myth, legend and folklore and on the collision — on that uncertain shifting and contested ground between myth and reality — between the human and spirit worlds and a third world, that of Nature and the Forest.
Rae Smith’s brilliantly designed set, finely lit by Paule Constable, a wooded walkway encircling the enchanted forest pool that is water-nymph Rusalka’s home may seem lonely, but it’s teeming. Her myriad sisters drop down from the flies like shimmying amoeba twirling long mermaid tails; veiled and black-clad ninja dancers, spirits controlled by unseen forces, the currents in the pool, sweep her and her father Vodnik around like surging waves.
Rejecting both the traditional folkloric and the more recent conceptual approaches, Melly Still’s revival of her 2009 staging for Glyndebourne remains a bewitching theatrical setting to the story telling where, as the director explains, she tries to avoid being either too interpretive or too illustrative and allow layers of meaning in the tale to resonate for the performers and the audience.
At its most fundamental the story is about the soul and the nature of what it is to be human — to experience obsession and rejection, love, heartbreak and redemption — and if it is worth it. A longing for love results in Rusalka being both cast out by humankind and cursed by her watery world, and her sadness and pain are audible in nearly every bar of the music.
Wioletta Chodowicz’s Rusalka was vibrantly and tirelessly sung, with an expressive voice of power and clarity soaring high yet dipping deep into mezzo territory. Melly Still makes plenty of demands on her singers and in her water-nymph incarnation Chodowicz swam backflips around Vodnik and was later required to deliver the first verse of the famous Act I aria to the Moon lying on her back.Ladislav Egr as the Prince was in fine lyric voice with an especially secure high register. He supplies ringing tone in this testing role, and by accentuating his youthfulness Still makes sense of his on-off-on attitude to Rusalka by implying that he has not learned to distinguish between lust and love and only comes to understand his true feelings in the final act.
Misha Schelomianski was outstanding, bringing a beautiful and deep soulful melancholy to the amphibious Sprite, Vodnik, ruler of both the lake and the woods. A sinister, flawed character, he nevertheless wants the best for his daughter. Schelomianski has wonderful technique, singing phrases with a true piano, displayed particularly in reflecting his concern when he sees the anguish of Rusalka in Act II. He produced a memorable performance, with his singing even more impressive than his pale green body and imposing cod-piece when he first appears in pursuit of the wood nymphs, the raunchy trio of Evgeniya Sotnikova, Michaela Kapustová and Alessandra Volpe, initially youthful and joyous, but later with a taste for human flesh in their bloodiest moment.
Anne Mason sang well – as the headscarfed babushka witch Ježibaba, a plump spiteful ogress, she makes the deal with Rusalka — given legs in exchange for her voice — and cooks up a magic spell involving the dismemberment of any number of cute woodland animals, helped by her sinister rugby scrum of cross-dressed clones. Tatiana Pavlovskaya was a strikingly glamorous Foreign Princess. Her voice is gorgeous: a very dark mezzo-like timbre, with a truly superlative technique, and a silken sound at any volume or pitch.
Leo McFall’s musical direction, the fine orchestra and chorus all combined to make this one of Glyndebourne’s most enjoyable offerings, and one which certainly deserves to be seen more often in this country. This must be one of the most ravishing of all opera scores and in the gorgeous final scene, McFall managed to draw a truly symphonic fullness and sense of structure from his players to reveal the opera’s emotional heart.