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Rusalka, De Munt/La Monnaie Opera
11 Dec 2008

When Water Sprites Go Bad in Brussels

Brussels’ reliably excellent De Munt/La Monnaie Opera served up a Rusalka that was theatrically vivid, musically resplendent, and cheered to the rafters at its premiere.

Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka

Rusalka (Olga Guryakova, Michaela Kaune (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); Prins (Burkhard Fritz, Ludovit Ludha (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); Vreemde prinses (Stephanie Friede, Anda-Louise Bogza (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); Vodník (Willard White, Frode Olsen (7, 13 16, 17/12)); Ježibaba (Doris Soffel, Livia Budai (7, 10, 13, 20/12)), Jager (Julian Hubbard); Eerste bosnimf (Olesya Golovneva); Tweede bosnimf (YoungHee Kim); Derde bosnimf (Nona Javakhidze); Slager (André Grégoire); Agent (Marc Coulon). De Munt/La Monnaie Opera. Conducting: Adam Fischer, Richard Lewis (13/12). Director: Stefan Herheim.


So why did I simultaneously find it so eye-catching, and so terribly exasperating?

Let’s first look at the source material The Little Mermaid story, as cleanly adapted by Jaroslav Kvapil and beautifully musicalized by Antonin Dvořák, shall we? Mysterious, melancholic, bittersweet, it is a journey prompted by our heroine’s romantic longing, deeply rooted in nature, and marked by spiritual conflicts and the moral consequences of love’s decisions. Dvořák’s masterful score somewhat loosely strings together solos and ensembles, some of it folk-inspired, all of it sublimely Romantic. And while the composer is never overtly programmatic, it is hard to escape the evocation of the moon, the water, the elements.

Now let’s talk about Wunderkind director Stefan Herheim’s spin on all this. Mr. Herheim has been building quite an impressive resume with high profile productions, such as last summer’s Bayreuth Parsifal. Based solely on this Rusalka, I fear that his reputation exceeds him.

The colossal realistic stage setting (excellently realized by Heike Scheele) seems to be an unidentified Belgian street corner, complete with a subway entrance, church, corner store-slash-apartment building and an Edward Hopper-like diner, alternately topped by a neon sign “Luna-tic” or “Solaris.” With a nod to nature, a tree with copious drooping branches fills one side of the street. The period is rather indeterminate, but it seems to center mostly on the 60’s, if most of Gesine Völlm’s witty costumes are any indication.

The curtain rises without music. A driving rainstorm with sound effects is in progress. Commuters play out a bustling scene. A sympathetic street person hawks flowers at the subway entrance, a couple wrestles with shopping bags, and a youth with a violin case and a red hat asks directions to some address or another. The action is full of detail. Then we find the scene being exactly repeated with the same signature bits. And again. There had to have been a full five minutes of this looped, repetitive pantomime.

And then. . .

A prostitute appears down left and poses on the proscenium. Lithe, blond-wigged, in a silver lame mini-skirt, jacket and matching thigh-high go-go boots, we have at last met our heroine. The music finally begins, sounding jarringly out of sync with the visuals.

The Water Goblin here becomes a downtrodden, at times psychotic, ax-wielding businessman, married to a red-dressed and -haired harridan, who turns out to be the Foreign Princess. They live in a balconied flat over a shop, in which graffiti-ed Rolladen open to reveal a show window that, over the evening, is at times a sex shop with dancing inflatable dolls, a bridal shop with three mannequins on display (one turns out to be Rusalka), or a butcher shop hung with three dressed pigs (none of which thankfully turn out to be anybody!).

The tortured Mr. Goblin is solicited by Rusalka on the way home, after which he pretty much has this sexual dynamic going on with her throughout, at one point chasing her, physically abusing her and beginning to rape her, only to find that he can’t. (Whew, incest with his daughter was averted in a show of rare restraint.)

During the “Song to the Moon,” Rusalka is elevated on a round advertising kiosk that arises from the floor, with a sort of bubble-light aquarium effect and a poster advertising “Poisson” cologne (it later curiously turns to become a replica of Monnaie’s real poster advertising this very performance). If you guessed that the “Luna-tic” sign somehow figured into this aria, you figured wrong. Instead, four satellite dishes on the buildings dipped toward Rusalka in individually spotlit obeisance. In verse two, lighting effects (superb work all night long by Wolfgang Göbbel) within the curtained apartments clearly indicated that everyone was suddenly watching television.

This was important, since after Rusalka invokes the name of Jezibaba, Water Goblin angrily hurls his box-style TV from the balcony to crash and explode in red flames becoming, one must suppose, the stove with red flames burning in the witch’s hut. Except there is no hut. Jezibaba is the very masculine looking street person. And so the director’s re-invention goes.

The Prince is a randy sailor returning home; the Gamekeeper in Act II here becomes a Butcher; the Hunter, a pot-smoking Peace-nik; the Kitchen Boy is an extra whose vocal part is taken instead by a Policeman; and if I have kept this all straight, Act III’s Gamekeeper has become a Priest.

In Act II, when the Prince is flirting with and being tempted by the Foreign Princess (who is Goblin’s wife, remember?), Rusalka passively discovers them from the start in bed together in a boudoir set up right in the street, an idea straight out of Evita’s Act I Harold Prince Finale. The great wedding celebration (well-prepared by choral director Piers Maxim) exceeds any Walpurgisnacht scene you can imagine with the chorus women in cartoonishly detailed padded nude body suits with distended buttocks, bloated bellies and drooping, pendulous breasts that would not be out of place in an Otto Dix painting. Later on, the ladies put on nun’s habits over this, but subsequently shuck them to copulate and debauch. For those of you who longed for a return to this 80’s Euro-stage-nun-as-bare-breasted-coitus-obsessed-saint-whore-cliche, well, it must have brought a tear to your eye.

The men are in garish Carnival costumes, one sporting a focus-stealing gigantic blue Afro, and there was enough gleaming foil confetti thrown to smother Antwerp. Having dressed Goblin up as Neptune and given him a hand mike, he and some revelers appeared in the house, engulfing us in confetti, too. I was thanking my lucky stars I was not on the janitorial staff here. In the midst of all of this, Rusalka flew in atop a crescent moon wearing a dazzling silver dress, swathed in a sparkling blue cape, and looking like the Virgin Mary. Soon, a retractable knife appeared and in due time several leading characters got stabbed, staggered a bit, one actually fell “dead” but then, no one ever died, but took their licking and kept on ticking.

In Act III, there was, briefly, a pleasant projection of water effects on a scrim that rose to the full height of the proscenium. But lest we get too eager for a return to anything resembling the real story, it disappears and as the three Water Spirits sing in their final tableau, deeply disturbed Water Goblin stabs the Foreign (aka Mrs. Goblin) Princess to death in their second floor bedroom (finally someone stayed dead) . At opera’s end, as police tape off this crime scene and lead the killer away, Rusalka is back on the street in her opening silver lame costume, soliciting another businessman.

The truly surprising thing about all of this is that as long as you didn’t understand Czech or glance at the surtitles that were talking about woods and trees and lakes and moons and, well, Kvapil’s inconvenient story, this was highly entertaining visual theatre, with well-defined character relationships (taken on their own terms), engaging effects and dazzling technology. I have nothing but praise for the hard-working stage manager and technicians who never missed a trick over a long and complicated staging. Mirror panels rolled around, the diner tracked in and out, stools rose and fell, the subway got re-dressed as a tobacco shop, the church’s rose window spun, ditto the apartment facades. This was an astounding, fantastical technical achievement in which the house can take great pride.

In a way, we were getting two different shows for the price of one. For on the musical side, the orchestra offered a secure, persuasive reading under Adam Fischer’s experienced hand, playing with sensitivity and real fire. Only the final stinging phrases of Act II seemed a little tame in an otherwise passionate account. We were equally lucky with our first-rate cast.

Lean, attractive Olga Guryakova is a near-perfect Rusalka, with a rich throbbing lower and middle range, and a hint of metal in the hurled top notes that rode the orchestra with fine results. She negotiated her famous aria well, but although her piano high notes were skillfully floated they were not her strongest suit. Willard White is in the golden years of a remarkable career and his Water Goblin offered the usual persuasive musical instincts and mellow, pleasantly grainy bass-baritone. The redoubtable Doris Soffel never fails to give pleasure with her formidable voice and assured stage presence. I did feel that at this point in her own long career, Jezibaba stretched her to the limit and was not quite a perfect fit, with the awkward passages at the break not always easily negotiated. As the Foreign Princess, Stephanie Friede was somewhat hampered by a character interpretation that made her even less sympathetic than usual, but she sang with steely (occasionally edgy) tone and forceful conviction.

I felt that the principals were uniformly excellent in their dramatic embodiment and they rose to the challenges Mr. Herheim posed them with an uncommonly well-acted ensemble performance. However, this total immersion into a violence driven concept also encouraged them to get heated up and splay a top note here and there with a too-enthusiastic approach. Not so, the terrific Prince of Burkhard Fritz. While always in the moment, Mr. Fritz controlled his well-schooled (almost) Heldentenor and served up phrase after phrase characterized by warm-voiced, technically secure vocalism.

The Three Nymphs, good time girls and regulars at the “Luna-tic” Diner, were a delightful trio who not only blended well, but were also vocally and visually distinctive: Olesya Golovneva, Young Hee Kim, and Nona Javakhidze. Julian Hubbard (Hunter and Priest), André Grégoire (Butcher) and especially Marc Coulon (Policeman) made solid contributions.

So, on the one side we had considerable musical delights drawn by a leading conductor from an orchestra in top form and a team of A-list soloists. And on the other, we had a multi-talented production team being led in a consistent, love-it-or-hate-it-can’t-look-away-from-it vision by a director of substantial gifts. Hmmmm. . .

It has to be conceded that Brussels’ Rusalka is a wholly professional, brilliant, edgy, production. It just happens to be the wrong one.

James Sohre

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