Rusalka, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2012

Can a force of nature acquire a soul? This is what Rusalka wants, to become human. As she says to the water spirit Vodník, humans have souls and go to heaven when they die. But souls are full of sin, says Vodník, …  and of love she responds. She has seen her prince and wants him to love her.

Dvořak’s opera Rusalka pits the powers of nature, particularly water, against human feelings and emotions. Like Ashton’s ballet Ondine it is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s fairy tale Undine that tells of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince. After acquiring human form, she loses her ability to speak, and at their wedding spurns his advances, feeling unable to compete with the fatal attraction of the articulate foreign princess. She abandons her prince, and though he searches for her and they are briefly reunited, his fate is sealed by his own unfaithfulness, and he dies in her arms.

Camilla Nylund made a lovely Rusalka, and Alan Held a very powerful Vodník. Both these performers sang the same roles in the original version of this production at Salzburg in 2008, and here at Covent Garden they enjoyed huge support from the other cast members. Bryan Hymel’s gloriously melodious voice was perfect for the Prince, and Petra Lang was superb as the foreign princess. Her body language is wonderfully expressive, and this singer who has made such a marvellous Ortrud in Lohengrin at both Covent Garden and Bayreuth, is perfectly suited to the role of a princess who feels not love but anger, determined that if she can’t have the prince then he shall be denied happiness. Compared to the princess he’s a weak man and instead of happiness he finds death as he begs Rusalka to kiss him at the end.

The power that allows this water nymph to turn into a human is the witch Ježibaba, strongly sung by Agnes Zwierko, and the singing of the three wood nymphs was beautiful, Madeleine Pierard in particular. Underlying it all was the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who imbued the music with huge emotional intensity at just the right moments. This was a terrific performance, and the singers were loudly cheered at the end, though the production team was roundly booed.

A bizarre production, photo Clive Barda

The production itself was brightly kitsch in parts, and like many other productions imported from the Germanic world, it presumably had a Konzept — in this case perhaps a brothel with Ježibaba as the madame, carefully checking the banknotes at one moment — but what’s the point? The ethereal nature of Rusalka and the watery forces of nature are better viewed without such a concrete representation. They inhabit a dark and mysterious world, yet the lighting at some points in Act III was extremely bright in a way that might work in Cosi fan tutte, but not in Rusalka.

This is a Czech opera — the very word of the title means water nymph in Czech — and does not fit easily with this Germanic-Italian production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. The theme of nature here is very much a Slavic one, and the term rus has an ancient Indo-European origin, meaning dew or humidity.

Do look beyond the superficialities of the production to the deeper meaning of the opera and don’t leave at the interval as several people did, because the performance is superb.

Performances continue until March 14 — for details click here.

7 Responses to “Rusalka, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2012”

  1. Vivienne Crossland says:

    I’m booked to see this on Monday, when I made the booking I was very sceptical with regard the setting of this Opera. It appears this sceptisim was accurate according to not only your review but members of the audience leaving the theatre prior to completion. What over ruled my thoughts was the applause received in Salzburg, however now my thoughts go back to original ‘is it worth the time and inconvenience’??????????

  2. D Glynn says:

    This was a ghastly evening. They took one of the most wonderful operas in the repertoire and comprehensively trashed it. They made significant changes to the characterisation of Rusalka, for the worse, which were written into the synopsis in the programme; a comparison of the synopses from last night and the previous Covent Garden Rusalka are telling. The visual design and costumes were appalling. Rusalka herself looked like a frump.

    Rusalka should be an overwhelming experience. My reaction to this was boredom and a longing for it to be over as soon as possible. I regard it as a disgrace that this should be the first encounter with Rusalka for probably 90% of the audience who had not seen it before.

    This was not Dvorak’s Rusalka, but Wieler and Morabito’s.

  3. Vivienne Crossland says:

    Oh dear Mr Glynn!
    My evening out next week has decidedly taken a huge downward turn! You speak from the heart, which I like very much and do so agree with you an Opera and story to boot so beautiful appears by all accounts to have been destroyed… sad….what a shame, and as you say can ruin the perception of this beautiful and enchanting opera to the novice 🙁

  4. D Glynn says:

    Dear Vivienne,
    I am sorry to spoil your anticipation of next week! But perhaps it is best to go prepared. You could always find a DVD of the wonderful Pountney production from the ENO, and stay home to watch that instead! That was an example of a “modern” production that was brilliantly successful.

    Coming back to last night, I can’t resist mentioning the climax of the evening; when Rusalka dumps the Prince’s lifeless body in the bin. Really, that sums it all up.

  5. Joseph Alder says:

    People must be prepared to go to the opera and think .. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Here the interpretation was quite clear and something worth debating. Otherwise opera becomes classical ballet where you just recreate performances from across the centuries.

    The best ‘explanation’ of this ‘Rusalka’ is by Jim Pritchard http: //

    • markronan says:

      Interesting point about the comparison with classical ballet, but in fact ballet choreography can change quite considerably, whereas the text in an opera remains fixed, apart from some deliberately altered translations. And ballet productions can and do change. For instance I’ve seen heaps of different Nutcrackers, traditional and modern, not all with the same cast of characters, and a really bizarre Romeo and Juliet once in Russia.

  6. […] Mark Ronan wants to derive this from Indo-European rus meaning ‘dew’.  There *is* a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *ros- meaning something like ‘dew’, but that leaves the question of how the initial vowel ended up being different. If we think about Russian, dew is roSA and rusalka is ruSALka.  If we want to derive both of these from an original *ros- we need a good story as to why exactly the initial vowel is different.  The environment is the same in both cases (initial position, followed by stressed a) and it’s a general rule that sounds that start off the same and have the same surroundings should end up the same. Vasmer’s etymological dictionary derives ‘rusalka’ from the name of a pagan festival, ultimately from the Latin ‘rosalia’ (see here and ignore the anti-Semitic adverts).  Again in the programme, Morabito wants to derive it from rusa ‘river’ or rusa ‘reddish-brown’ and sees the connection with ‘rosalia’ as a later conflation.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t say where he gets these words or roots from… […]

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