Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):