Rusalka, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2012Posted on 28 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.
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.