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Sunday 19 June 2011

Rusalka at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera

I adore Rusalka, for me one of the finest of all late romantic operas, coming as it does right at the nadir of the 19th century (it was finished in 1901). In places the affinity with Janacek's Jenufa (of 1904) is overwhelming, though the latter feels like a 20th century work in every way, whereas the former is without question a late flowering of the romantic era. The score is absolutely gorgeous throughout, something very special even by the standards of Dvorak, with orchestration of an art that conceals art. The peculiar luminosity and beauty of the prelude alone is extraordinary and provides the musical norm by which Dvorak continues.

But Rusalka is hard to bring off in performance, and many productions go wide of the mark and don't allow the piece to make it's full impact. Part of this I believe is due to the confusion that arises about how to categorise this opera: the music falls into two distinct styles throughout and is constantly switching between them. The first is the ultra-lyrical, serious and sad music that surrounds Rusalka and the Prince - this is as you'd expect from late romantic opera - rapture, heart break, passion (Eugene Onegin the clearest antecedent, with Wagner for orchestral sweep and erotics) though of course with Dvorak's instantly distinctive personality always recognisable. Behind it all, Smetana provides another important well spring.

The second style Dvorak utilises when dealing with virtually all the ancillary characters, and this one is far more connected to the folk music of his native Bohemia; the clearest ancestor is Humperdinck in Hansel and Gretel, and it's extension again back to Wagner. Humperdinck's peerless masterpiece manages to merge German folk song into a wholly Wagnerian orchestral fabric and is one of the greatest of all Wagnerian operas. Similarly in Rusalka, Dvorak's native folk music is given deluxe late romantic orchestral treatment, creating a spirited, folksy charm that marks a stark contrast to the music for central heroin's plight. This seems to vex many directors who struggle to assimilate both styles into one vision, the "serious-tragic" on the one hand and "spirited-folksy" on the other - each has it's own vocal style, it's own dramatic rhythm, mood and dramatic workings. As a result, Rusalka remains only on the fringes of the repertoire, revived with regularity, but often one leaves the theatre feeling that it's a better opera than the production has allowed.

The opening scene with the water nymphs for instance, so clearly borrowed from Scene 1 of Rheingold and Act 3 of Die Walkure, but then sculpted and folked to taste, beautiful and enchanting when sung well, here felt awkward in contrast to Rusalka's entry. Part of Dvorak's dramatic plan is this enormous contrast in mood and pace, but it didn't come off here. The production is slightly redolent of a school production with its simply painted sets (overhead projector onto flat boards?!), and crude simulacra of the pool and forest. It's not at all visually alluring, but at least the story is told clearly and effectively enough.

Rusalka can be interpreted in lots of different ways - another reason that it is rather hard to stage - it's not at all obvious what to do with it. Part of the late 19th century's obsession with folk tales was what they might mean psychologically, what under the surface they really reflected about the situation and us. So whereas the story is relatively simple (effectively the Little Mermaid, but with a sad ending), the psychological and sexual undercurrents as well as comedic aspects add a very interesting zest and bouquet to proceedings. The psychological roller coaster was interestingly explored here I thought, mostly in lots of piquantly arresting details.

The march in the central act was depicted here as a pantomime banquet, though the guests get rather more raunchy than might be expected at a royal dinner. In the previous scene, during the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Hand's first exchange, two kitchen staff are seen gutting fish for the feast, and when Rusalka is late offered the fish we feel her revulsion and shudder with her. Anne Sophie-Duprels plays the part wonderfully, her unpassionate, innocent, coolly piscine youthfulness all brought across very well in a myriad of little details. Her hands are constantly held stiffly by her side, flapping gently in the air. During the pantomime she is wrapped in bridal gauze but we realise that for Rusalka it feels like a fishing net, choking and harrowing. Throughout, her legs show the still bloody suture that the witch inflicts on her when her mermaid tail is cut up to grant her wish, the barbarism and pointlessness of the action again making a very visceral impact, despite it's comedic overtones (The witch is wielding a huge cleaver). The idea of mirroring that this opera contains is nicely and subtly picked up in many ways - while Rusalka's new legs are always on show and she loses any sense of elegance, the other women wear fishtail like dresses and sweep across the stage. Rusalka has bright red hair, and so to does the Foreign Princess (so evil, she doesn't even have a name!), though in the latter case her tresses are permed and quaffed, in contrast to Rusalka naturally flowing locks, straight and sleek.

Rusalka's father is a merman, here depicted like an aging rock star - long haired, narcissistic (the opening scene has him sitting on a rock admiring himself in a mirror!), world weary, and impotent. Clive Bayley plays the part very well and has great vocal presence for this great bass role.

Character actors are often very good in provincial opera, because they get paid less than the stars and so smaller houses can afford to hire them too. Virtually all the supporting cast were good or outstanding. Emma Carrington as the witch Jezibaba almost steals the show in an amazing piece of dramatic characterisation, both vocally and her superb acting. She is an ambiguous character - she seems to hate humans, but she doesn't exactly love the water spirits either - she seems to want to help Rusalka in some ways, but exacts cruel punishments too. Her costume is fantastic a business like pinstriped dress, acting as a facade for for the fishy details that trail behind. A coral necklace also suggests her aquatic affinity. Her youthful figure and beauty, but tightly pinned mass of white hair suggest an unnaturally prolonged youth, unsettling even while it remains alluring. Carrington's portrayal of the witch is sexy and captivating but her lapses into cruelty and sadism, sometimes just a flicker running across the face, show us that she's ultimately inhuman and not at all a sympathetic character. A superb performance here, and though the voice isn't naturally one that is effortlessly beautiful or even very large, it's very well produced, even, extremely expressive and beautifully controlled. I'd love to see her as one of the stern Janacek mother figures, especially as Kabanicha, a role she apparently has played at Scottish Opera. The voice is probably not quite big enough or low lying enough to be ideal, but with musicianship and acting as good as this, It's still something I'd gladly pay to see.

Janis Kelly made a glamorous and vocally splendid Foreign Princess, all sophistication and glitter, where Rusalka is childlike simplicity and plainness. She a good comic actress too, and was perfect in this role. James McOran-Campbell is a very talented young baritone and made a great Gamekeeper - look forward to seeing more from him. Karina Lucas sang the role of Karina Lucas well, though overracted.

The two leads however were disappointing - Anne Sophie-Duprels sounded hoarse, husky and vocally tired as Rusalka, and it's not a voice that I'd want to hear much lyric repertoire in (though she seems to keep getting cast in roles which require the most liquid beauty for success). The horrible jaw shaking whenever the volume increased was one of the most extreme cases I've seen - not just jaw but tongue, neck, mouth and cheeck oscillation too - way too much tension and tongue compression, which strongly affected to sound. The song to the moon was ugly. As I have said though, her acting was very good.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts seemed strained vocally in every scene, with a forced, horribly grainy tone in the passagio and whenever he was singing quietly and high. Again huge jaw oscillation due to tention made the sound squeezed and lumpy. His acting is fine, though physically he's not really right for the part - he's rather large and it's difficult to imagine that the nubile nymph Rusalka would be so aroused by his bulky visage.

Again the reason for this relative disappointment is perhaps only to be expected at these small-medium sized opera houses - the people who this music was written for, the people who could really do it justice, tend to be much bigger stars that demand much higher salaries that more modest venues cannot afford.

The English Chamber Orchestra sounded decent but never inspired under Stephen Barlow's direction, but then my comparison is Charles Macckeras with The Czech Philharmonic (Fleming as Rusalka) so maybe th comparison isn't fair.

So what of Grange Park Opera? To me it feels like Glyndebourne light. It's not as big, the grounds aren't as nice, the quality is not the same, the house is shabby. Even the brochure feels cheaper than Glyndebourne's (though is £5 dearer), the printing quality, layout and design, as well as the smell (! always important). I still enjoyed myself a lot, but perhaps they should try less hard to compete. Though the clientele make Glyndebourne look like a hoody scheme, so maybe that's just who their audience is.

I'm seeing Rusalka at Glyndebourne later in the season, also a revival, but one I didn't see last time, so it will be interesting to see another take on this paradoxical beauty.

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