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.



29/02/2012 § 2 Comments

It is 220 years today since the birth of Gioachino Rossini (although, since he was born on a leap year, it is only his 55th birthday). He wrote one of the most famous tunes in the whole world ever, and also this:

(annoyingly, the aria is interrupted by a load of chat, but Cecilia Bartoli’s facial expressions are just so wonderfully over-the-top)

and this:

and this:

(Generally one has to choose between reasonable sound and proper videos on Youtube.)


Opera versus theatre

24/01/2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve got another post at MostlyFilm today – a collaboration between me and Lissy Lovett. She’s a theatre buff and I’m an opera fan and we’ve written a dialogue about the differences between the two theatrical experiences:

Josephine: Yes – the music has to do a lot in opera. And it often succeeds amazingly well. The final act of Tristan and Isolde, for example, is practically devoid of action. Tristan and his friend Kurwenal basically just sit around staring at the sea waiting for Isolde to arrive. Without the music you’d just be thinking ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ but when you see and hear it performed it seems totally gripping, full of longing and tension. Although with Wagner, you know, opinions differ…

Actually Wagner’s quite an interesting person to mention with reference to your point about music, plot, acting & visuals all forming a coherent whole. His idea about opera was that it ought to be a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a total or universal work of art – which would unite opera, drama and visual arts into something which had universal relevance and was a peak of culture. I’m not sure he succeeded in that! but I do find that opera generally and Wagner in particular is much more understandable and gripping when you see it live than when you just listen on the radio.

Lissy: ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ was very much my internal monologue whilst watching the recent-ish Waiting for Godot revival at the Haymarket Theatre Royal.  The whole thing would have been enlivened no end with a bit of singing.

I’m not sure I’m ready for Wagner!  Maybe another couple of entry level operas before going on to the hard stuff…  Did/do Wagner’s operas have fixed set designs and costumes then?  Or did he want them to & to have a hand in that?  OR did the just think that the greatest visual artists of the day should be designing them?  I love the big-headedness of thinking you can make ultimate art.

I really enjoyed the process of writing as a dialogue – it all seemed to come much easier than working on something alone.

La Traviata

10/01/2012 § 2 Comments

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in the current ROH production

New Year’s treat: a trip to the ROH’s Traviata on the 2nd January.This was the first opera I ever saw live (a very sweet friend took me for my eighteenth birthday) and seeing it again was wonderful. It contains what’s surely a strong contender for my favourite scene in all of opera: the scene where Alfredo’s father visits Violetta and asks her to renounce his son, and she pleads with him to let her have just a few months more as she is dying of consumption in any case.

It’s this scene that lifts the opera above melodrama. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Les parapluies de Cherbourg, about how the poignancy of that film stems from the fact that no character in it is acting in bad faith. In La Traviata it’s similar: Germont (Alfredo’s father) may enter the scene as the epitome of bourgeois morality, top hat, beard, cane and all, but although he represents a religious morality (count how many times in that scene he refers to God, heaven, blessings or angels) he’s not a cruel or hypocritical man. He doesn’t believe Violetta when she tells him she is dying, but he recognises the enormity of the sacrifice she is making and her sadness at agreeing to part from Alfredo. What obliges him to demand the sacrifice from her nonetheless is his belief that because Violetta and Alfredo aren’t married, their relationship has no future. What makes Violetta accede to his request is her sympathy for Alfredo’s sister, who is ‘si bella e pura’ (so beautiful and so pure) and her feelings of shame at not being similarly pure; it’s heartbreaking, but so human.

The music is the perfect expression of the struggle between them: Germont’s measured phrases contrasting with Violetta’s anguish until both of them lift their voices together. You can watch the whole scene here:

What Verdi is saying about social morality is still brilliant and important: that it’s not force (violence or law) which constrains people to conform to social pressure, but the way they internalise those pressures. Your own feelings of shame about your way of life are more repressive than any external preaching could possibly be. It’s this humanity that makes Verdi’s operas so gripping. The story about the courtesan who falls in love and then loses her lover could be superficial and utterly melodramatic, but in Verdi’s hands it’s full of subtle and complex emotions.

Photo above from the Royal Opera House flickr.

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