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Camilla Nylund as Rusalka [Photo by Clive Barda/ROH]
28 Feb 2012

Rusalka, Royal Opera

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an interesting opera production will be met with incomprehension and lazy, philistine hostility by vast swathes of the audience in many, perhaps most, of the world’s ‘major’ houses, a truth that renders one all the more grateful for the Royal Opera showing the courage to stage this new — to London — production of Rusalka.

Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka

Rusalka: Camilla Nylund; Foreign Princess: Petra Lang; Prince: Bryan Hymel; Ježibaba: Agnes Zwierko; Vodník: Alan Held; Huntsman: Daniel Grice; Gamekeeper: Gyula Orendt; Kitchen Boy: Ilse Eerens; Wood Nymphs: Anna Devin, Justina Gringyte, Madeleine Pierard; Mourek: Claire Talbot. Directors: Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito; Revival Director: Samantha Seymour; Set Designs: Barbara Ehnes; Costumes: Anja Rabes; Lighting: Olaf Freese; Video Designs: Chris Kondek; Choreography: Altea Garrido. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/ Yannick Nézet-Seguin (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 27 February 2012.

Above: Camilla Nylund as Rusalka

Photos by Clive Barda/ROH


Rusalka_ROH_2012_02.gifAgnes Zwierko as Ježibaba and Camilla Nylund as Rusalka

That is not to say that any production meeting with hostility qualifies as interesting; some, of course, are simply not very good, or worse. Yet, it seems that only the most vapid, unchallenging — and yes, I realise that the word ‘challenging’ is a red rag to self-appointed ‘traditionalist’ bulls — of productions will garner approval from the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie. The boorish behaviour of those who booed this Rusalka equates more or less precisely to the sort of antics they would condemn if they occurred on the street — the work of ‘hoodlums’, the ‘lower classes’, the ‘uneducated’, ‘rioters’, ‘immigrants’, et al. — yet somehow unwillingness or inability to think, the fascistic refusal to consider an alternative point of view, the threat of mob violence, becomes perfectly acceptable when one has paid the asking price for what they consider to be their rightful ‘entertainment’. They would no more bother to understand, to explore, to question, Rusalka were it depicted in the most ‘traditional’ of fashions, of course, but they explode at the mere suggestion that a work and a performance might ask something of them. For, as John Stuart Mill famously noted, ‘Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.’ Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ — ‘emotionalisation’, not abdication! — remains as foreign a country to them as it did to the Jockey Club thugs who prevented Tannhäuser from being performed in Paris; at least one might claim that the latter were having to deal with challenging ‘new music’, Zukunftsmuik, even. Here they were faced with an opera by Dvořák, first performed in 1901, in a staging that would barely raise an eyebrow in most German house or festivals. (The production, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, hails initially from the Salzburg Festival.) It would be interesting to know how many of those booing had selfishly, uncomprehendingly disrupted a recent Marriage of Figaro in the same house by erupting into laughter at the very moment Count Almaviva sought forgiveness from the Countess. (There was also, bizarrely, to be heard at the opening of the third act a shouted call from a member of the audience for a ‘free’ Quebec.)

Rusalka_ROH_2012_03.gifScene from Rusalka

What, then, was it that incurred the wrath of the Tunbridge Wells beau monde? I can only assume that it was for the most part Barbara Ehnes’s sets, since the stage direction (presumably a good part of it from revival director, Samantha Seymour) was more often that not quite in harmony with the urgings and suggestions of Dvořák’s score. (The hostile rarely if ever listen to the music; at best, they follow the surtitles and bridle at deviations from what they imagine the stage directions might have been.) Even modern dress is mixed with a sense of the magical, the environment of Ježibaba the witch a case in point. There is even a cat, played both in giant form by Claire Talbot, and in real form, by — a cat, ‘Girlie’. What is real, and what is not? Collision between spirit and human worlds is compellingly brought to life, the devils and demons of a heathen past, including Slavonic river spirits (rusalki) come to tempt, to question, to lay bare the delusions of moralistic, bigoted modernity. Just as modern ‘love’ and marriage’ quickly boil down to money and power, so Vodník the water goblin finds his tawdry place of temptation whilst issuing his moralistic warnings. (Did the audience see itself reflected in the mirror? Perhaps, though I doubt that it even bothered to think that far.) Our ideas of Nature having been hopelessly compromised by what we have become, we ‘naturally’ see the world of rusalki from within the comforts of our hypocritical bordello. Who is exploiting whom, and who is ‘impure’? The souls of women who have committed suicide and of stillborn children — there are various accounts of who the rusalki actually are — or those who shun them in life and in death? Wieler and Morabito do not offer agitprop; rather they allow us to ask these questions of the work, and of ourselves. But equally importantly, they permit a sense of wonder to suffuse what remains very much a fairy tale, realism coexisting with, being corrected by, something older, more mysterious, more dangerous, and perhaps ultimately liberating. Chris Kondek’s video designs, not unlike the hydroelectric dam of Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centenary’ Ring, both suggest Nature and through their necessary technological apparatus remind us of our distance from any supposed ‘Golden Age’, just as the opening scene will inevitably suggest to us Alberich, the Rhinemaidens, and the power of the erotic. (Wagner used the term liebesgelüste.)

Rusalka_ROH_2012_04.gifBryan Hymel as Prince and Petra Lang as Foreign Princess

Musical performances were equally strong, in many respects signalling a triumph for Covent Garden. First and foremost should be mentioned Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Royal Opera debut. The orchestra played for him as if for an old friend, offering a luscious, long-breathed Romanticism that made it sound a match — as, on its best days, it is — for any orchestra in the world. Magic was certainly to be heard: the sound of Dvořák’s harps again took me back to Das Rheingold — and to Bernard Haitink’s tenure at the house. Ominous fate was brought into being with similar conviction and communicative skill. Above all, Nézet-Séguin conveyed both a necessary sense of direction and a love for the score’s particular glories. If there are times when Dvořák might benefit from a little more, at least, of Janáček’s extraordinary dramatic concision, it would take a harder heart than mine to eschew the luxuriance on offer both in score and performance. Crucially, staging and performance interacted so that the contrast between worlds on stage intensified that in the pit, and vice versa.

Camilla Nylund shone in the title role. At times, especially during the first act, one might have wondered whether her voice would prove to have the necessary heft, but it did, and Nylund proved herself an accomplished actress into the bargain. Bryan Hymel may not be the most exciting of singers; the voice is not especially variegated. However, he proved dependable, and often a great deal more, the final duet as moving as one could reasonably expect. Alan Held was everything a Vodník should be: baleful, threatening, sincere, and yet perhaps not quite. The Spirit of the Lake may well have his own agenda — and certainly did here. Agnes Zwierko played the witch Ježibaba with wit, menace, and a fine sense of hypocrisy that brought the closed environments of Janáček’s dramas to mind. The four Jette Parker Young Artists participating, nymphs Anna Devin, Madeleine Perard, and Justina Gringyte, and Huntsman Daniel Grice all acquitted themselves with glowing colours. Indeed, Grice’s solo, enveloped by miraculous Freischütz-like horns from the orchestra, movingly evoked a world of lost or never-existent woodland innocence. Last but not least, Petra Lang’s Foreign Princess emerged, like Wagner’s Ortrud, as in some respects the most truthful, as well as the most devious, character of all. Splendidly sung and acted, Lang’s was a performance truly to savour. But then, this was a performance as a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts, a triumphant return to form for Covent Garden with its first ever staging of the work.

Mark Berry

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