Rusalka: a beautiful, stunning-sounding crock of visual crap

Well, to get something clear from the outset: I am not against innovation in opera production; I am not against new interpretations that play with the ideas presented in the work itself; I’m not against modernism in the theatre, or radical updating of the setting of an opera. In short, despite my slightly sniffy comments about aspects of Berlin’s offerings last weekend, I am not entirely against Regietheater. I have even, on occasion, expressed the view that the Royal Opera could do with a bit more adventurousness in its production style.

I make that clear in order not to be lumped in with that particular group of opera reactionaries who want everything presented with mind-numbing Metropolitan Opera-style ‘traditionalism’. Because I have to say that the Royal Opera’s Rusalka was a disaster of a production which did a great disservice to the work it purported to present.

It is all-the-more irritating because this is Rusalka‘s belated house debut (in fully staged form, at any rate); the long-standing omission was grievous enough to begin with, but that misdemeanour has been turned to crime by bringing it to the stage in so shoddy a form. Then, to compound matters, it was in fact an evening of spectacular and transcendent music-making; the company did Dvor’ák proud in purely musical terms.

The production, originating in all its dreary tediousness at the Salzburg Festival in 2008, is by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. The setting is a single set-within-a-set which revolves showing front and back of a curtained and tawdry small stage, ‘backstage’ being a 1980s bling setting (think Russian oligarch’s wife with a unique lack of taste), and which would appear to be a brothel. At any rate, a man enters halfway through Act 3 and the women (the nymphs!) all sit up to put themselves on show, so I’m guessing that’s the idea. The madam is Ježibaba. This idea seems to hinge – from first to last – on passages at the beginning of Act 3 when Ježibaba mocks Rusalka for having wanted to pursue human love in the first place. Her cynicism and bitterness about true love over mere desire is the fulcrum upon which a contemporary story of the downfall of a ‘tart-with-a-heart’ teeters precariously.

That basic premise is not, in itself, an entirely poor concept (or perhaps I should say ‘konzept‘). As I pre-read the synopsis I could see how this much-trailed departure could be a promising avenue. The score and story certainly contain some intriguing juxtapositions of worldly/otherworldly, good/evil, virtue/vice, dark/light and so forth. It becomes very quickly apparent, however, that once you get beyond broad-brush generalisations, the idea is not supported by the text of Rusalka, nor its music, and certainly not by the overall sensibility of the piece. Time after time, words made no sense and contradicted the mundane presentation on stage.

The production’s immediate problems, this konzept having been adopted, are therefore basically two-fold: it is stupendously ugly and, in its lack of variety and lazy direction, it is butt-numbingly dull. If the idea fitted the piece and told a convincing story, I could live with the poor execution (and, indeed, vice versa, if it was an unsuccessful idea stylishly executed), but it doesn’t. Not a shred of it. Dvor’ák and his librettist very expertly delineate the supernatural from the human world; if you wilfully remove one of them, then you destroy the piece’s very foundations and it simply doesn’t work. There is no contrast left and no inherent drama. And so this production is, in summary, the poor execution of a bad idea. I think that’s about as near to a complete failure as one can get.

Lighting was unsubtle and failed to bring about any meaningful delineation or heightening of mood, and resolutely forced attention onto this single set which stood throughout the performance, the ‘inner’ stage being set within an overall frame that made it look like an oversize Finnish sauna. One moment stood out: after having bundled the Prince’s lifeless body into the prompt box (which had been replaced by a metal drain cover), the lights on the set finally faded down to leave a ghostly, death-pallour (and deadly) Rusalka to sing her final invocation to God to have mercy on him. It was a nice moment, mostly because (finally!) we could no longer see that god-awful set. Amongst various ridiculous interventions along the way, we had three types of cat (a stuffed toy one, to which Rusalka sang the Song to the Moon(!); an actor in a cat costume who inelegantly jollied up the transformation of Rusalka into human form with some feline ‘sexy’ antics; and then a real one that was tethered to the sofa for the first 15 minutes of Act 3). The prompt box was the coming-and-going point for Vodník, who crawled around the floor in galoshes in a way which made no sense whatsoever – by Act 3 he was either client or staff of the brothel, seemingly. Crucifixes were brought into it a various points, for no clear reason. At the start of Act 3 a lamb was being disembowelled on stage. Why? No idea. Movement was, in general, perfunctorily directed around the meaningless spaces created by the set. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

But it’s dull just recalling it, so perhaps we should move on to something more positive: the music. I was reminded anew just what a fantastic late Romantic score Dvor’ák has written; its pacing is spot on and the whole thing is about as economical as can be achieved within the Romantic style. To my ears, it has scarcely any moment of inconsistency or redundancy. The Royal Opera debut of little-bundle-of-energy Yannick Nézet-Séguin was auspicious indeed, with a big, fruity, dramatic Romantic sound, full of gorgeous textures, especially the woodwinds. The orchestra played wondrously, to bring life and lilt to the piece (which was desperately needed as the production compensated by sucking the life out of it). Rhythms in the dance sequence of Act 2 were intoxicating.

As Rusalka, Camilla Nylund’s voice was occasionally small for the weight of orchestration that she was up against, and a little hard-edged, perhaps wanting that ethereal sheen that Fleming brings to the Song to the Moon, but in all other respects she was a fantastic Rusalka, and if she had any reservations about the production, she wasn’t showing it. She delivered a moving display of her alienation in Act 2, in spite of… well, you know what I was going to say. Anyway, Bryan Hymel was simply amazing as the Prince, rising to ringing, full-throated tenor abandon in Act 3. Nylund and Hymel’s final duet was a definite high-point, and they transcended the poor setting magnificently. Polish mezzo Agnes Zwierko made a deeply satisfying Ježibaba, bringing naturalistic acting to the concept of the character as well as a rich mezzo/contralto tone. I mean no disrespect when I ask whether anyone can chew the scenery quite as spectacularly as Petra Lang? She made a fantastic Foreign Princess, placing the role firmly in the ancestral line of Dynasty’s Alexis Colby, prowling the stage like a Black Widow on a mission, and hurling her taunts (not to mention some quite chilling laughter) with thrilling force. The three Wood-Nymphs (or prostitutes, depending on your conception of the piece) were expertly despatched by Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte, Jette Parker Young Artists all, and more than ever appeared descended from Wagner’s Rhinemaidens. Fellow JPYA Daniel Grice continued to deliver on the promise of his substitute Wolfram last season, as the Huntsman. Alan Held was tremendous as Vodník; amongst musical highlights, his Act 2 lament for Rusalka’s loss was heart-rending, making it easy to tune out the production behind him.

So there we have it. This season had those 22 very traditional Traviatas: the opera gods presumably have to punish us somehow, and that they have done – visually – with this Rusalka. I hope Rusalka returns to the Royal Opera very soon. I hope this production is binned long before.

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