I have a particular love for Czech repertoire, and Dvorak's Rusalka is one of its most precious jewels. Like Eugene Onegin, Pelléas et Mélisande and Bluebeard's castle, it's a sort of one off, never to be repeated perfectly itself opera, a serendipitous meeting of composer with subject matter, libretto and sound world that just works beautifully well to create something truly unique. The luminosity of the orchestration, superb musical characterisation and differentiation of the different roles, ravishing beauty of the harmony and melodic fecundity make this a very special work (like so much other late Dvorak - so many pieces seem uniquely special!)
Astonishingly this is the first time it's been staged at the Royal Opera House (two concert performances were given with Fleming and Mackerras in 2003), and for the occasion they have imported a 2008 production from Salzburg originally directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Seymour, with revival direction by Samantha Seymour. Whilst this is an "updating" to modern dress (not that the original has a date), elements of the mystical remain - Rusalka really is a water nymph initially, her sisters feral wood spirits scuttling around in their opening scene with alarming velocity and singing almost flawlessly. Along with these characters, Rusalka's father Vodnik and the witch Jezibabu, ironically herself crippled, all live in some sort of half ethereal realm (denoted by a subtly shifting, ever drifting stage and projections on the set) in a state of decay, moral and physical (both the surrounds and themselves). That Rusalka's father is sexually aroused by his daughter's sisters introduces the dark undercurrents of deviant sexuality and abuse that permeate this work - though initially at least the girls are free and wild. (Presumably they have a different father - we never meet Rusalka's mother, but a potentially polygamous woman in the background already provides a subversive and very non Christian family picture). His neglect is obvious too - whilst Rusalka sings idealistically of her longing for love (she seems very young with her cuddly toy - her craving for love at this age further suggests his neglect), he barely listens, waving to and flirting with the nymphs.
Later, in the third act, he and Jezibaba have captured and imprisoned the nymphs as sex workers in a seedy lounge brothel - they are forced to lavish their false affections on the Gamekeeper while Jezibaba hungrily undresses the Kitchen Boy. Their nervous twitching and animalistic behaviour cement this picture of desocialisation and ritual abuse, and they soon grab their chance to escape. Vodnik's sententious moralising here and at the beginning sickens though also moves: we cannot but give into this ambiguity - he seems to love his daughter whilst also hatefully controlling and destroying young women who seem so similar to her.
Meanwhile the love of a man is destroying his daughter - in this production the prince seems more torn than he is often shown to be, and comes to her rescue when she is mocked by the towns people, but mostly he is a narcisist and is mainly concerned with his own rapturous feelings. When Rusalka proudly totters out to meet him with her new legs looking like some incongruous stepford wife he serenades her endlessly (and it has to be said gloriously!), obsessed with her beauty, but seems uninterested in her true identity.
In the end Rusalka, unable to capture his attentions and possessed by grief, commits suicide, her disturbed sisters barely seeming to notice, though Vodnik weeps over her corpse. The final scene seems to be largely internal/psychological for the prince - Rusalka haunting his conscience when he realises what he's done to her. In the end she is left in a sort of terrifying limbo, static, unfeeling, destroyed.
I could go on with this sort of analysis, but ultimately of course everyone will take their own meaning from it. This is an interesting production, not always perfectly executed, but quite well thought out, visually strong, if not beautiful, and powerful in its impact. It is not, as Rupert Christiansen seems to suggest, intellectually abstruse (seriously have to wonder sometimes with this man). The constant questioning of what is real and what is imagined, what is psychological and what is magical is not a weakness and perfectly in keeping with the ambiguity of the libretto. The three views of the cat we get - as a stuffed toy, in a comic pantomime with a person in a cat costume, and then with a real cat suggests this as strongly as anything does. Sometimes the acting is not quite up to the ideas especially from the two leads, but in general the ideas came across well enough, and I was rather moved by the end.
There was a general air of incomprehension from the audience which I found perplexing - this was pretty simple person-regie and none of it seemed that difficult to interpret to me. Lots of people were grumbling about relevance (especially the young people) but all of it seemed exactly in line with the themes of the opera to me, even if not presented in a traditional fairy tale setting. The production team was met with heavy boos. Depressing that audiences are so reactionary, especially when there were were so many young people here. My guess is that people wanted romantic tragedy, not sexual immorality and grime, but in this story the two are really so far apart: it's just a matter of perspective.
Musically this was a very strong evening. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has the measure of this score and coaxed some gorgeous playing out of the ROH orchestra particularly the winds and strings. There was always a feeling of symphonic weight and purpose, whilst simultaneously being flexible and sensitive to the singer's requirements. Pretty ideal then. One thing grated: intonation from the brass was often slightly questionable, particularly the principal trumpet which has several rather exposed solos. But overall a very strong show from both conductor and orchestra.
I didn't like Camilla Nylund's Rusalka very much I have to say. The voice is quite light, silvery when quiet which seems ideal, but there's no weight in the lower register, and the higher she sings and the louder she sings, the less focussed the sound and the wider the vibrato gets. Virtually every climactic high note was between a quarter tone and a semitone sharp. This lack of focus means the voice just doesn't cut through the orchestration in the climaxes. Additionally there's little sense of legato and not much colouring of the line or use of the text for expression. I actually didn't completely dislike it, wasn't as awful as all that - the voice is generally secure and quite attractive, it just doesn't quite deliver when it needs to. The three Wood Nymphs (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) were all Jette Parker Young Artists, and all were very very good indeed - best I've ever heard from the Young Artists programme. Whoever was singing the first nymph (the cast sheet was not specific) I would genuinely have preferred hearing as Rusalka - her tone was sweeter and her pianissimos were unbelievable.
The rest of the cast were superb too. That Czech is fantastic language to sing in was amply demonstrated by Agnes Zwierko as the witch Jezibaba and Bryan Hymel as the prince. Zwierko has a very unusual sounding voice, very large, very rich throughout (with obvious registral breaks), but she really digs into the text using the language's wonderful consonants and also has a huge palette of vocal colours to draw on. The Prince is a difficult role to cast as it needs fairytale sweetness but a significant amount of heft - Hymel was pretty ideal I thought - taking full advantage of the pure vowels of Czech to create a juicy, ringing Italianate sound. Rock steady and warm all the way through the voice, his high notes superbly rounded. He seemed to drift about a bit on stage, not the greatest actor, but seriously fine vocalising.
Alan Held was a very good Vodnik, the voice resonant and clear and big. Again absolutely rock solid all the way through the range. No complaints here. Petra Lang sang the great role of the Foreign Princess pretty well - ideally this voice should be steely, dramatic and maybe even slightly squally to contrast as much as possible with Rusalka's ultra lyrical, silvery youthfulness - which just about describes Lang's voice - just a tiny bit more volume might have been welcome. Daniel Grice, also on the Young Artists Programme offered some beautiful singing in the small baritone role of the Huntsman. Gyula Orendt and Ilse Eerens as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy respectively were both also very good in their scenes together. Rare that I'm this happy with a cast!