Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rusalka review – a night of operatic splendour in Munich

14 May 2023

The Bavarian State Opera revives Martin Kušej’s enthralling staging of Rusalka, with a faultless cast led by the peerless Asmik Grigorian in the title role. This really is as good as it gets.


Asmik Grigorian & Günther Groissböck (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Sometimes, and it occurs all too rarely in opera, the stars align and every single element – staging, design, singing, conducting, and playing – combines to deliver a performance that leaves you reeling in its wake. This is exactly what happened on Sunday evening in Munich, as the Bavarian State Opera revived its 13 year old staging of Rusalka – a chilling, enthralling, high voltage production by Martin Kušej.

The capacity audience responded with thunderous applause and, rare in these parts at any rate, a standing ovation. For a repertory performance this kind of reaction was off the scale, yet totally deserved. Because this was an exemplary evening of music making on an exalted level, sung by a cast at the top of its game without a single weak link, that was dramatically attuned to every single aspect of Kušej’s highly detailed, physically demanding retelling of Dvořák’s fairy tale opera.

But his view of the work couldn’t be further from the composer’s. Traditionalists will probably balk and recoil in horror at the fact that he takes the Fritzl case – an horrific true story of incest, rape and imprisonment – as his starting point. The curtain rises on Vodnik, Rusalka’s father, standing alone on stage, Aldi carrier bag in hand, in front of a backdrop of an idyllic Alpine vista. Or is it? Scuffed round the edges, and peeling at the side, this is a mere facsimile of picture postcard beauty. Ingeniously, Kušej and his designer Martin Zehetgruber prepare us for a world that appears normal, but beneath the surface something terrible is happening. And in a stroke of theatrical genius we soon find out what that is, when the stage rises to reveal a dank, subterranean dungeon where Rusalka and her sisters are imprisoned. From that first, arresting initial image until the final, in a sanitised dormitory, the tension never flags, with Kušej tightening the dramaturgical screw relentlessly as the action unfolds. Much of it is genius, as he manages to find the perfect visual metaphor for each stage of the drama. 

When Rusalka calls on Ježibaba to transform her into a human – here Vodnik’s all-seeing wife, who is fully aware what’s going on, but refuses to acknowledge the dark deeds unfurling below – Ježibaba hands her a pair of red stilettos. Ungainly, awkwardly, Rusalka stumbles across the stage as she literally tries to find her feet as she makes her way in the real world. In the second act, Kušej conjures up a brutal world of infidelity. A trussed up deer that’s later disemboweled by the gamekeeper is an object of fascination for Rusalka – an eerie portent of the tragedy that lies ahead. Later, in the disturbing choreography that accompanies the dance music – men and women costumed in bridal gowns cavort with deer carcasses before feasting on their innards. Whilst the visual language of this staging is uncompromising, Kušej is an intelligent enough director to make sure it’s used in the service of Rusalka’s plight. 

“…a chilling, enthralling, high voltage production…”

Here, scorned by the Prince, she begins to hanker after her former life – her encounter with Vodnik is infused with a tenderness that is both shocking and illuminating at the same time. Is the return to a life of abuse more palatable than the one she rejected it for? It’s this kind of laser-like integration of the subject matter that gives this staging its visceral power and holds the audience in a vice-like grip throughout its three hours plus. 

Of course, the most brilliantly inventive staging in the world needs a committed cast to bring it to life, and on that front the Bavarian State Opera struck gold. At its heart was the utterly heartbreaking Asmik Grigorian, in what has quickly become her signature role. Not only did she throw herself completely into everything the director asked of her – including climbing into a fish tank – but she also sang with unfailing brilliance throughout the long evening. Ravishing in her ‘Song to the Moon’, she sang and acted as if her life depended on it. And in the final duet with Dmytro Popov’s ardent, lyrically sung Prince, her pearly top notes rang out thrillingly. This was a performance for the ages, and cemented her position as one of the most exciting singing-actors on the lyric stage.

In addition to Popov’s vocally resplendent Prince, Günther Groissböck repeated his acclaimed portrayal as Vodnik. He has been a constant in this staging, having sung the role when it was new in 2010 and at every subsequent revival since. His wealth of experience, and affinity with Kušej’s sleazy, down at heel take on the character, was evident in every bar – his resplendent, cavernous voice filling out Dvořák’s melodic lines effortlessly. Ewa Płonka’s bright soprano, suffused with flashes of steel, was a superb Foreign Princess, while Okka von der Damerau was the ideal embodiment of malevolence and complicity as the witch, Ježibaba. As Rusalka’s sisters, Mirjam Mesak, Natalia Kutateladze and Stephanie Wake-Edwards, were a perfectly blended harmonious trio, while Ulrich Ress and Xenia Puskarz Thomas both delivered vivid cameos as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy.

Conductor Henrik Nánási led an energetic performance, drawing Wagnerian sonorities from the Bavarian State Orchestra that was in thrilling form. Pacing and balance were faultless – no mean feat given this was a repertory performance, mounted on minimal rehearsal. He achieved miracles. All in all, this was an exceptional evening of music theatre that I’ll never forget. Opera quite simply doesn’t get better than this.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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