Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rusalka: Drown your sorrows in this lily pond

22 June 2022

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink…


Natalya Romaniw (Photo: Clive Barda)

“I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / Waiting for their light.” (Wendell Berry)

Garsington Opera’s brilliant staging of Rusalka focuses on the healing power of nature and the catastrophe of how man has lost contact with the environment. In the same way as Tristan und Isolde, the opera examines the duality of man and nature, life and death and love and passion, and director Jack Furness has shown a deep understanding here of what the witch Ježibaba calls the severance of our roots.

Garsington is on a roll this year: after the thrilling Orfeo and the elegant Così fan tutte, comes this finely sung, magnificently played and sensitively imagined Rusalka. To say that the three substitutions in the cast had no effect on the audience’s enjoyment is a compliment indeed, although everyone from the principals to the volunteer ushers must have felt some trepidation, and it’s a tribute to the company ethos here that the evening was spectacular from start to finish.

We are on the edge of a lily pad atop a faintly dank pond, surrounded by the cast iron girders of a Victorian water treatment plant; Tom Piper’s design and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting work together superbly to create the varying stage pictures of the crescent moon, rippling water and obscure, slightly disturbing woodland life. Surrounding all this, suspended from ropes resembling part of the vegetation of the forest, we meet the three Wood Nymphs, beautifully sung by Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards, whilst balancing high above the water – just try doing that and singing at full tilt! The scene is completed by six Aeralists and Acrobats, who would be worth the price of admission in themselves, tumbling, ‘flying’ and moving with stunning grace. The choreography, by Fleur Darkin and Lina Johansson, is quite breathtaking.

Emerging from the water, we find Henry Waddington’ s Vodnik, a water sprite as part of pond life, and singing with commanding power and warmth of tone. This is the third time we’ve seen this singer in a matter of a couple of weeks, in three very different roles, and here standing in for the indisposed Musa Ngqungwana you would imagine he had been doing nothing but preparing for this very part. What a consummate professional.

“Garsington is on a roll this year…


Christine Rice & Natalya Romaniw (Photo: Julian Guidera)

Natalya Romaniw’s singing as Rusalka was full of her characteristic warm glow, and her ‘Song to the Moon’ combined lovely tone and a sense of desperate longing. Her Prince was sung by John Findon, who had understudied the role and had been due to sing the gamekeeper. He covered himself in glory; this is a truly heroic tenor voice, capable of rising to the rafters yet finely cultivated in the softer passages, and he executed to perfection the concept of the prince as every bit as much of a lost soul as Rusalka, each searching for the elusive love that their present manifestations seem unable to provide. Their closing ‘love death’ duet was sublime, with two ideal voices blending together in some of Dvořák’s most ecstatic music.

Christine Rice’s Ježibaba was presented as a glittering reptile, slithering with rage or disdain, and her singing, as expected, was vibrant in every phrase. Dominick Felix took over the part of the Gamekeeper from John Findon with great success, and Grace Durham was a feisty cook’s apprentice. There were also strong performances from Sky Ingram as a wonderfully haughty Foreign Princess, and Mark Nathan as a clear-voiced Huntsman.

Douglas Boyd and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave a very romantic interpretation of the score, pulsing with feeling and sweeping towards the dramatic climaxes; it was quite something to watch the conductor managing the whole panorama of players, singers and acrobats. The Garsington Chorus, whether snobbish ball guests or sad sisters, sang superbly and were, as ever, very well characterized.

If either this or the Orfeo don’t win awards this year, then I promise to listen to a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande all the way though whilst smiling.

• Details of future performances can be found here

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Rusalka: Drown your sorrows in this lily pond