The new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka rides high on eco-friendly themes. The overture in the pit accompanies a pastoral scene that conjures a lake in which male and female figures are seen diving. This is a hint to a romance and is a precursor to what is to come.
This production is an ode to nature created by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee. The duo translates the opera’s narrative to an ecological tale where the enchanted natural world is damaged by humans who unleash pollution and corrupt the beauty of the natural world. To this end, the artistic team conjured a woodland with hanging fronds of foliage made from old fabric of earlier opera productions. Even the three wood spirits are dressed in green and yellow, looking more like characters out of a children’s programme. In the second Act, the Prince’s ‘Palace’ is an overcrowded space with characters draped in ‘fossil fuel’, smoking. There is a sense of claustrophobia in an overcrowded space. In the last Act, back into the lake and this time, there is a crowd, mess and plastic. This is a challenging take on the subject of human-made clutter and distraction of nature is imposed on the libretto, creating, in parts, a jagged sense of disharmony.
Rusalka, premiered in Prague in 1901 and has been performed there ever since. However, this Czech opera edged into international recognition very slowly and gradually. La Scala only premiered Rusalka in 2022. The Royal Opera House braved the challenge in 2012 and premiered it, with Camilla Nylund in the eponymous role.
The libretto received numerous interpretations, however. Rusalka is all about sound and music. In this production, the conductor Semyon Bychkov splendidly teases out the richness and subtlety of Dvorak’s score. A colourful and evocative narrative comes to life as if the orchestra is the master puppeteer of the whole work, echoing to the sound of penetrating brass. It was pure exhilaration from the overture to the final note.
Rusalka, a water spirit, is desperately in love with a Prince. Her love sets the scene for her burgeoning desire to become human. Ježibaba, a witch, ‘a wise, eternal spirit’, helps her to transform to a human. There are, of course, strings attached – Rusalka must give up her voice and the Prince must stay loyal to her. I guess the wise woman knew that there is a limit to how long a wife can keep her silence and there is a question mark over a handsome Prince’s ability to sustain loyalty to his wife. Failure to adhere to either condition proves fatal to both. Rusalka goes through the agonising process of joining humans, only to discover that overwhelming feelings of love is a powerful incentive to getting her Prince, yet it is insufficient to secure his fidelity nor to resolve deeply rooted obstacles embedded in a lack of communication.
Asmik Grigorian’s Rusalka invokes vulnerability that gradually transforms into strength that accompanies the inevitable reality check. In the last Act, disillusioned, she seeks to return to the water. Grigorian’s long solo song with orchestra enhancing the tenderly seductive score, heightens the emotional intensity of her lament over loving a human. This Act is a sheer triumph.
Rusalka’s Prince is skilfully performed by David Butt Philip, a Jette Parker Young Artist. His firm with lyric beauty tenor voice matches his character. Emma Bell’s Duchess, the femme fatale, is playful, seductive, and fabulously glamourous. Her confidence and lack of empathy shatters the union between the Prince and Rusalka. It is a delicious performance.
Ježibaba the witch (the programme indicates: “wise medicine woman”) is performed by Sarah Connolly. Her warm voice has greater tenderness than is required of the character. Rusalka’s father Vodnik is beautifully performed by Aleksei Isaev.
A special mention must be made of cameo roles superbly and comically delivered by the cross-dressed mezz-soprano, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, Hongni Wu, as Kuchtic, a servant in the Prince’s Palace and by Ross Ramgobin, Kuctic’s uncle.
The set designs by Chloe Lamfort are interesting but not always successful. The costumes designed by Annemarie Wood are simple and effective, apart from the Wood Spirits’ outfit, which is clumsy. Paul Constable’s lighting effects are pure triumph.
- Music by Antonín Dvořák
- Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil
- Conducted by Semyon Bychkov
- Directed by: Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee
- Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell
- Cast includes: Asmik Grigorian, David Butt Philip, Aleksei Isaev, Sarah Connolly, Emma Bell, Hongni Wu and Ross Ramgobin
- Royal Opera House
- Until 07 March 2023
- The performance lasts about 3 hours 50 minutes, including two intervals.
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