Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rusalka review: The Royal Opera’s new staging is fabulously well sung, but dramatically inert

21 February 2023

Asmik Grigorian and David Butt Philip are spellbinding in an evening of musical riches.


Rusalka (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Given that Rusalka is Dvořák’s most popular and frequently-performed opera, it’s surprising that this was only the second staging in The Royal Opera’s history. The first, in 2012, was a much reviled regietheater staging by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito which had originated at the Salzburg Festival four years earlier. Although in the minority,I thought it was a thought-provoking, serious piece of theatre that packed a powerful dramatic punch. Other directors such as David Poutney, Richard Jones, David Fielding, Melly Still and Martin Kušej have all explored the darker nature of the work, ranging from a young girl’s sexual awakening, through to sexual abuse and incest. Whilst some may prefer not to be confronted with such challenging views about this classic fairy-tale opera, every one of these directors provided a wealth of insight into the work, and although you may not have agreed with everything they had to say about the opera, at least they all said something – and with conviction.

Alas, the same can’t be said about this new, sustainable staging created by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, with designs and costumes by Chloe Lamford and Annemarie Woods, lit by Paule Constable. Whilst the opera certainly lends itself to an exploration of how we relate to the natural world, this visually dreary, dramatically inert staging did nothing to advance that cause nor shed any new light on the topic either. What we got instead was something that resembled an Otto Schenk Met staging from the ‘80s – but the most depressing thing about this endeavour wasn’t the faux picture book realism, rather the lack of direction of the singers. There was a lot of arm flapping and clumsy blocking, and there was no discernible sign of any dramatic sparks between the characters either.

Although the production was disappointing, musically the evening was on an altogether different level. Conductor Semyon Bychkov has a special affinity with Czech music, and his deep understanding of the idiom manifested itself in every bar. From the hushed, magical opening through to the thrilling love duet at the close, his control of the ebb and flow of the score was nothing short of masterly. He never shied away from Wagnerian bombast where required, but was equally attentive to his singers, providing support where required. This was a glorious account of this lush, Romantic score, and he drew attentive, wonderfully detailed playing from all sections of the orchestra, which was on magisterial form. 

“…this visually dreary, dramatically inert staging did nothing…”


Asmik Grigorian & David Butt Philip (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Despite having missed the final rehearsal as she was unwell, Asmik Grigorian nevertheless rose to the formidable vocal challenges Dvořák makes of his titular heroine. Rusalka’s famous aria ‘Song to the Moon’ comes very early in the first act, and Grigorian infused with a rare sense of warmth, her silvery soprano caressing the vocal lines despite approaching some of the higher lying passages with caution. She grew in confidence and stature as the evening progressed – the closing duet with the Prince was thrillingly voiced, crowning an impressive, highly musical performance.

As her Prince, David Butt Philip showed why he has become the country’s finest dramatic tenor. With a string of high profile engagements on the continent, including Laca (Jenůfa) and Walther (Die Meistersinger) in Vienna, he produced a steady stream or ardent, thrilling singing throughout the evening, cutting through the dense orchestral textures with ease. On the basis of this superlative performance, he is on course for a stellar career – the prospect of his role debut this June in San Francisco as the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten is indeed a mouth-watering one.

Emma Bell made more of the role of the Foreign Princess than usual, and brought Wagnerian splendour to the proceedings, her rich voluminous soprano riding the orchestral tumult with ease in the second act. As expected from one of our finest singing actors, Sarah Connolly turned the Witch into a three-dimensional character, avoiding over the top histrionics or pantomime camp, and sang with rich, full-blooded intensity. As Rusalka’s father, Vodnik, Aleksei Isaev gave notice of a major talent – his powerfully projected bass reaching the depths with ease. 

With a fine supporting cast including Vuvu Mpofu, Gabrielė Kupšytė and Anne Marie Stanley as a sprightly trio of Wood Spirits, and Ross Rambogin (Hajny) and Hongni Wu (Kuchtík) providing some light relief with their comic antics, this was a stellar cast without a single weak link. Musically this Rusalka was a red-letter day for The Royal Opera.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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