wed 23/06/2021

Rusalka, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Rusalka, Royal Opera House

Rusalka, Royal Opera House

Dvořák opera's debut at Covent Garden is a lamentable farrago redeemed by Nézet-Séguin

All images Clive Barda

Why has the Royal Opera not staged Dvořák’s Rusalka before now? I know there have been plausible distractions: the lock grip of Italian repertoire, fear of singing Czech, fixation with Dvořák as an instrumental composer, two world wars, a shortage of good water nymphs. But Sadler’s Wells gave the British premiere of this musically sumptuous "lyric fairytale" (its official description) as long ago as 1959.

Since then the Little Mermaid­-ish drama of the water nymph longing for human love has visited English National Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera North, Grange Park, Wexford; I could go on. Even now, Covent Garden hasn’t thought from scratch but arranged for a production to be shipped in, from the 2008 Salzburg Festival, where it caused a kerfuffle of boos and applause.

It did the same here last night. The original directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, designer Barbara Ehnes, and the revival director Samantha Seymour have served up a lamentable farrago, topped by a gallimaufry of sets and props that could have been dragged in from Covent Garden by a cat. A bordello’s tarty curtains and red vinyl couch, pink neon lights and crucifix, big wooden slats, fish swimming in video projections; I could go on. Talking of cats, we get three of them, all black: one a stuffed toy, odd recipient of the opera’s big hit, the heroine’s Song to the Moon; one a performer grotesquely costumed, who claws at Rusalka’s plastic mermaid tail, then mounts her for jiggery-pokery; one a real cat, Girlie by name, who briefly curls on a sofa in Act Three before stalking off. Add to all this three wood nymphs primed for Saturday night bingeing, and other assorted clobber from directors who have raided Slavic mythology, Freud, and the post-modern tool kit without being able to integrate their haul in the opera they’re supposed to be staging.

Still, let’s look on the bright side, which means for the most part looking into the orchestra pit. This is Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Covent Garden debut, and it’s a triumph. Rusalka has always been a lovely score, but Nézet-Séguin wills the Royal Opera House Orchestra to deliver its beauties with an extra kiss of sensuousness, extra jabs of drama. Bucolic woodwinds burble, limpid harps ripple, Wagnerian chromaticisms slither in the brass: every detail shimmers with passion. No wonder someone yelled out Nézet-Séguin’s name after the last act’s introductory applause.

Camilla Nylund, Salzburg’s Rusalka, is another house newcomer. Her soprano’s white tones entirely suit a character referred to as "pale Rusalka", who dresses in Act Two in bridal whites, outcast ghost at the Prince’s feast. But with that whiteness come insufficient decibels for reaching over the orchestra, where most of the pleasures in Song of the Moon reside. Bryan Hymel’s lyric tenor projects the erring Prince’s anguish fairly well, though he reaches for some top notes as you might for an apple dangling on a branch just beyond your arm. The biggest vocal satisfaction is offered by Alan Held’s water goblin Vodník (pictured above right with Nylund) – warning and admonishing throughout with comfortable resonance and considerable feeling. Petra Lang, flirty in pearls, enjoys herself as the Foreign Princess, though her diction could be crisper. Vivid if erratic impressions are also left by Agnes Zwierko’s slatternly witch Ježibaba, and the wood nymph gaggle (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard, Justina Gringyte) whose close harmony goes some way to alleviate the dramatic idling in Act Three.

In Wieler and Morabito’s mess it’s Act Two, in the Prince’s castle, that works the best: the tightest in focus, less overrun with silliness, glued together by Rusalka’s travails as she’s passed around like a rag doll, awkward and forlorn.  This is touching: this means something.  For the rest, you sigh or roll your eyes. Rusalka, finally on the Covent Garden stage, deserves better. 

  • Rusalka at the Royal Opera House on 1, 3, 6, 9 and 14 March

Comments

I confirm: the music is fantastic, Yannick NS is a star, but it's not necessary to take a seat with a view of what happens on the scene.

Which is probably why I enjoyed the performance so much from the upper slips right, from where much of the action, but not the music, was hidden.

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