Rusalka: Royal Opera House

13/03/2012 § 5 Comments

‘Surely you’re not going to see that!,’ my grandma said, ‘The Telegraph said the music is lovely as long as you close your eyes.’ The Telegraph went further and described the production as vandalism, stretching the outrage into a further five columns.

There wasn’t any booing the night I saw it, but the Telegraph was right that the music was lovely: somewhere between Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was superb. I thought Camilla Nylund as Rusalka was either not quite up to the part or having an off-night, although I liked her rolling languidly over the stage in her mermaid’s tail in Act 1, but Bryan Hymel as the Prince and Alan Vodnik as Vodnik, the water goblin, were both splendid.

The plot is very similar to (possibly based on?) Hans Christian Anderson’s The little mermaid. Rusalka the water-nymph falls in love with a human Prince and trades her mermaid’s tail for feet, but in return must lose her voice; and if the Prince betrays her love, the two of them will be eternally damned. Agreeing to horrific terms in order to win the love of another is never a good idea, of course, and in the third act Rusalka has to choose between saving herself by killing the Prince, or damnation for both.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production sets the underworld action in a brothel, moving to a comically tacky mittel-European court, with the courtiers in a combination of dated formal wear and Austrian Tracht (formal folk costume). The Intermezzo blog points out something I’d missed: that the rotating set dividing two worlds, half pine box, half velvet-lined underworld/brothel, has more sinister overtones in Austria, where this production was first shown, than it does in the UK.

Tucked away in the cheapest seats I possibly didn’t catch all the nuances of the production and set design, but I didn’t think it was shocking or ‘over-intellectual’; the brothel-as-underwater-world metaphor was a good idea. The water nymphs are creatures of instict, motivated by pleasure and not by convention. Rusalka’s silence when she is given feet becomes more than just her punishment; it reflects the impossibility of such a creature operating in the court world dominated by calculation and convention.

I might be soppy, though, but I do find these deliberately banal, unglamorous productions dull. All that fluorescent light and Rusalka in badly fitting stone washed jeans, with the witch in grubby popsocks and a zimmer frame; I don’t mind it, and I know it’s there as an opposition to the massively over-lush grand opera productions you get sometimes, but it’s so dreary! Last year’s Hänsel and Gretel did the same thing, with the stepmother toting shabby SPAR carrier bags. I suppose it evokes that Elfriede Jelinek-y rather sordid central European realism, which seems quite appropriate to the spirit of the production; I just don’t madly enjoy it.

I must add in conclusion that while I’ve seen chickens, donkeys and horses on stage  (Carmen and La Fanciulla del West) I’ve never seen a cat on stage and I thought the transformation of the witch’s cat, from a human in a cat costume in Act 1 to a real cat in Act 3, was absolutely marvellous. (You can see the cat here.) In fact I didn’t quite believe it was a real cat—you can’t stage train a cat!—until it leapt up and scampered off the stage. Whether that was planned or not I don’t know. It got a ripple of laughter though; if any of my readers see the same production they must comment to say whether the cat does the same then.

You can read a round-up of all the reviews—from 5 stars to 1—here.

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§ 5 Responses to Rusalka: Royal Opera House

  • Chris Brooke says:

    Just back from Rusalka, and the Act Three cat was fab–including (remarkably, I thought) starting to miaow at key moments in the action, quite audibly.

  • Josephine Grahl says:

    Oh, the drawbacks of sitting in the Amphitheatre slips, well out of earshot of any miaows, become apparent. Did you enjoy the rest of it?

  • Chris Brooke says:

    Yes, I did. Very much so. I thought all the singing was terrific, and even remembered a very small amount of the Czech I thought I had forgotten, and the aesthetics of the production didn’t bother me at all. I think in both the first and the second Act there were periods when it did all seem a bit static, and what was happening on stage wasn’t terribly interesting, but that may very well be a fault of the drama itself rather than of the particular production.

    Thinking of Rusalka herself, I was reminded in particular of that old saying about postgraduate students: they aren’t bad people, they just make terrible life choices.

  • Chris Brooke says:

    My goodness: I’ve just realised what the reference to “sinister overtones in Austria” is about. I read that line yesterday, but didn’t make the connection. And I do see what you mean.

  • Josephine Grahl says:

    Yes – gruesomely appropriate.

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