February 29, 2012
Rusalka at the Royal Opera House
Rusalka – Royal Opera House, 27 February 2012 (ROH work premiere)
Despite the Daily Telegraph’s best efforts to whip up controversy about its supposedly “anti-semitic” and “terrorist” content, the first night of ENO’s The Death of Klinghoffer apparently passed with barely a hint of protest. Audience slowly lulled into torpor would be my guess.
Yet over at the Royal Opera House, Dvorak’s Rusalka, an opera about – let’s face it – a bunch of fairies in a pond, excited a response more suited to a state visit by Robert Mugabe.
First off there was a political protest. “Vive le Québec libre !” yelled some twat at the back of the darkened auditorium as Québécois maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin raised his baton for the last act. Let me remind you we were 3,000 miles distant from anyone who might give a toss. Poor YN-S bent double with embarrassment before gathering himself together for the final push.
Then there was the curtain call. There wasn’t “a chorus of boos” at the end, as another Daily Telegraph entrant for the Bad Journalism awards puts it. (Are they all pitching for a job at The Sun on Sunday?) But when the production team took their bows, there were enough boos – all seeming to emanate from top price stalls seats, wouldn’t you know – to match the hearty applause. Perhaps our nation’s critics were the guilty parties. Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far froth with a degree of rage better targeted towards paedos and politicians than an evening’s entertainment. And there enough factual errors in some of the critiques to suggest large swathes were ‘watched’ through closed eyes.
I know we don’t all like the same things, but what can have made people so angry? OK, so this show does not look like an Arthur Rackham drawing. But then I bet God doesn’t look like Father Christmas either. There are none of the classic button-pushers – nudity, lavatories, guns, Bob Wilson, and so on, so that can’t be it. And in any case, nobody who saw Monday night’s show can claim they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production began life at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. This is documented in copious reviews, clips and photos, plenty of which can be found on the ROH website and in the programme.
What’s more, although it’s in modern dress, the production is at heart conventional and straightforward. Like many before them, Wieler and Morabito explore the duality of the human and spirit worlds in terms of parallels and contradictions, viewing the story of the mermaid who loses her tail as a parable of sexual initiation and the loss of innocence.
I wouldn’t say it’s a truly great production – Stefan Herheim tackles the same theme more effectively – but it’s a decent enough one. Wieler and Morabito respect music and text, channeling their interpretation to match both. Only rarely is there a disjunct. The most noticeable fault is a tendency to lay the symbolism on with a trowel (though it clearly still wasn’t enough for some to geddit). But the mere fact that this production invites a variety of interpretations is a pleasing rarity for Covent Garden. Is the obligation to think really that much of an imposition?
Both worlds are located in a single revolving set, a red velvet-draped room on one side, a pine-panelled wall on the other. (Like a few other design touches, this would have had greater cultural resonance in Salzburg than WC2). A Little Mermaid statue sits on a table with nymph-shaped legs. Angela Gheorghiu’s prompt box becomes a portal to the underwater world.
Rusalka begins the story as a child, rolling around the floor in a sparkly fish tail and playing with her stuffed cat toy. Projections of marine life scud across the wall in a SpongeBob SquarePants sort of a way. A huge ghostly jellyfish is the strangely appropriate background for Rusalka’s Song to the Moon.
A shoe cabinet full of glamorous heels evokes Rusalka’s dream, but Jezibaba’s crippled leg suggests a darker reality. To turn Rusalka into a human, Jezibaba’s tomcat claws off her mermaid tail and rapes her as the orchestra pound out savage folk rhythms. Any shock value is diluted by casting a dancer in a panto costume as the cat – the violent assault becomes disturbingly funny.
As Rusalka enters the Prince’s palace, the Kitchen Boy disembowels a white doe – a forewarning of Rusalka’s fate. The Prince’s entourage in their Jankers and dirndls (Salzburg again) are shown as a hypocritical bunch of bible bashers.
The final act finds the ruined Rusalka back home. But home has been transformed into a tawdry brothel. The Wood Nymphs are barely-clothed prostitutes and Jezibaba is the Madam, sprawled on a shrink-wrapped sofa with a (live) black cat commandeering audience attention for its five minutes of onstage fame.
Rusalka stabs herself and dies, but rises zombie-like to exact the Prince’s final doom. You won’t find this in any standard synopsis. It’s generally assumed (though, importantly, never said) that Rusalka is ‘undead’ throughout. But Wieler and Morabito’s version fits so precisely with both music and text, especially Rusalka’s chilling final words, that it seems more natural than the usual reading.
Musical values were exceptionally high thanks mostly to Nézet-Séguin’s command of score and orchestra. His attention to detail paid off in a fabulously homogenous string sound and superb balance. I have doubts about the cogency of his symphonic interpretations (like his meandering Bruckner 9 with the LPO a couple of weeks back) but he seems psychically attuned to the ebb and flow of dramatic narrative. Orchestra and singers occasionally drifted apart but there was never any let-up in the pulse and energy.
Camilla Nylund’s bleached silvery soprano was ideally suited to the title role, though she sometimes struggled against Nézet-Séguin’s no-holds-barred dynamics. Bryan Hymel gave the best performance I’ve ever heard from him, unvaried in colour perhaps, but not lacking in passion and commitment. Alan Held was a suitably dolorous Vodnik, and the trio of Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte impressed as the scantily-clad Wood Nymphs. Agnes Zwierko’s Jezibaba struck a fine balance between comedy and menace, and it was simply a luxury to have the eminent Wagnerian Petra Lang as the Foreign Princess.
*Warning* if you’re going – the performance is nearly 3 and half hours long, which is about 30 minutes longer than the ROH advance publicity suggested. Nézet-Séguin doesn’t dawdle, so my guess is he may have cancelled some initially-planned cuts.
UPDATE – check out Jessica Duchen’s in-depth interview with co-director Sergio Morabito.
production photos (above) – Clive Barda for Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) – intermezzo.typepad.com