It is not surprising that some directors feel the need to mix Dvořák’s Rusalka just a little. Its setting is so fantastical that to spend over three hours in the presence of nymphs, witches, goblins and princes, with no stance or slant, no satire or irony, could easily dilute the stoutest of hearts.
That does not mean, however, that any ‘alternative’ staging will automatically succeed, and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production, which started life at 2008’s Salzburg Festival, just seems too intent on not playing it straight down the board. Both the lakeside and human world are represented with gaudy modern living spaces, decked out with rich velvety curtains and crude religious imagery. The Wood Nymphs start out as scantily veiled creatures who writhe erotically, and end up dressed as more modern day whores. There may admittedly be a point to all this, but it does feel rather misguided.
The staging not only fails to enhance the opera, but actually hinders some aspects. The experience of listening to the wondrous ‘Song to the Moon’ is marred by seeing Rusalka fondling a stuffed cat throughout. The aria can benefit from a gentle sense of movement on stage, but the occasional writhings of the wood nymphs do not tie in with its rhythms, and so are only distracting. All this said, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund’s rendition of the piece is tantalising, as she achieves a balance between enunciating those wonderful Czech words and producing a sound of mesmerising beauty and strength. The only reason that this aria does not steal the night is that her performance during the remainder of the evening is just as exceptional.
The staging can also inhibit the singing itself, and on opening night the Prince’s concentration seemed broken by actions such as putting his jacket on Rusalka, which led to moments where he was overwhelmed by the orchestra. This aside, Bryan Hymel’s tenor voice teems with expressive energy, and maintains its cleanness of tone even when at its most powerful.
In fact, apart from the staging, everything about the evening is brilliant. Rusalka, hardly the best known opera in the repertoire, combines eerie and haunting episodes with music of truly epic proportions. The influence of Wagner is clear, and when the Water Goblin Vodník appears before the Wood Nymphs if feels like Alberich encountering the Rhine Maidens. The difference is that Vodník is a benevolent figure who tries to protect Rusalka from harm, but both parts would seem to demand the same type of singer and Alan Held, with his deep, powerful and expansive voice, is outstanding in the role.
Agnes Zwierko as Ježibaba is also highly convincing, and represents one success story with the designs. Other than a final scream, there is no attempt to make her overtly witch-like, and she is portrayed as a cruel, calculating, selfish old lady who nonchalantly sprays perfume around, even as Rusalka ‘dies’. Petra Lang is wondrous as the Foreign Princess, with her rich, powerful voice proving perfect at portraying this self-centred and demanding figure. No matter how one views the costumes or portrayal of the Wood Nymphs, it is hard to deny that Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte sing the parts with searing beauty and elegance.
Making his Royal Opera debut, the young but experienced Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts with a winning combination of relish and control. Sculpting the music and shaping the sounds to perfection, he demonstrates brilliant understanding of the score and uses this to bring out a rich variety of textures in the music.
At the opening night’s curtain call, the production team were jeered to the extent that the boos outweighed the applause, which I find very sad. Lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I see a difference between someone articulating why they don’t like a staging, and feeling that they are so obviously right that they are entirely justified in humiliating others in public. People are free to withhold applause or feedback to the ROH electronically, and nor does having bought a (possibly expensive) ticket give someone the right to behave as they please. The Royal Opera House hardly made a secret of the staging in advance, and anyone could have followed this up by googling the Salzburg reviews.
To save ending on a bitter note, I shall just mention that the closing scene between Rusalka and the Prince is as moving and brilliantly performed as anything you are likely to witness in the opera house this year. Rusalka is an incredible creation, that at the ROH you will hear sung and conducted to an exceptionally high standard. In spite of the staging, I could not recommend it more highly.
The Royal Opera House’s Rusalka will be broadcast at 18.00 on 2 June 2012 on BBC Radio 3.