Josephine Novak reviews Dvorak's opera Rusalka.
I have rather strong prejudices when it comes to opera, so it is a tribute to the performance of Rusalka that I have just seen at the Liceu, that despite the fact that it goes against all of my ideas of how a work should be presented, I loved every minute of it. The production defied logic and turned the libretto on its head, making no sense at all. But it was so lively, and so full of realism and so well done, that it crept past my guard.
Rusalka is basically a take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” Rusalka, a water sprite, yearns to become human and to marry the prince with whom she has fallen in love. She begs Vodnik, the powerful water goblin, and the witch Ježibaba to help her achieve her dream, and after many warnings, they agree. But, they tell her, as a human she will be unable to speak – ever – and, should she fail, there can be no return to her former life; she will wander alone and unfulfilled for eternity. She does fail, because her silence eventually causes the prince to find her cold and uninteresting, and he turns instead to the brightly-painted, forceful character known only as the Foreign Princess (beautifully interpreted by the American Emily Magee, who has become a pillar of the Vienna State Opera and has a rich, commanding voice).
No doubt Antonin Dvorak, the Czech composer whose lyrical and romantic music, popular now for over a century, conjures a beautiful water-world, visualized the staging as reed-filled and tranquil. But these days, such an easy, logical presentation is no longer fashionable. Every director seems to feel that it is his obligation and privilege to mess with the original map, however satisfactory it is.
Thus, we have this production by Norwegian Stefan Herheim, who more or less ignores the sense of the libretto and turns large chunks of the work into indecipherable nonsense. It says much for both the singers and the stylistic acting of the Liceu’s regulars that it is possible to overcome these disadvantages and have a splendid evening.
Mind you, not everybody agreed, and the disagreement was something of a social statement. At the end, the expensive seatholders applauded with brio and yells of “bravo.” But it sounded, from where I sat, as if an equal number of people booed with enthusiasm; and the booing came from high up, where the passionate opera-lovers come to hear, not to be seen. I confess I clapped and “bravo”ed with a slight shame at my surrender to the magic, however ill-advised.
It was a beautifully done production, with a handsome and versatile set, a brilliantly choreographed cast, interesting if often inexplicable action and exquisite singing. Camilla Nylund, the Finnish soprano who has made this one of her distinguished roles, sang and acted with great lustre. She was equally good last year, when I saw her in the role at Covent Garden, but the production there, from Salzburg, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, was such an insult to the entire opera (and roundly booed, by the way) that an acquaintance of mine said that he loved every minute of it, as long as he sat with his back to the stage. This was not the case here. Quarrel with the logic and the choice of presentation, by all means; but there was no denying its attraction.
For reasons known only to himself, Director Herheim decided to make the central character the Water Goblin Vodnik, rather than Rusalka. This may be because he has a larger singing role, but it was a mistake. The character came across wishy-washy, as did, to an extent, his singing, and the effort of interpreting his actions distracted from the music.
The witch Ježibaba has a lipsmacking role, with plenty of opportunity to display both vocal and acting talent. Ildiko Komlosi took the opportunity with both hands.
Beloved British conductorAndrew Davis (greeted with huge enthusiasm when he stepped up onto the podium) drew a fine performance from the Liceu orchestra.
There will be five more performances: December 30, January 2, 5, 11 and 14. Despite my gripes, I urge anyone who can to go: peculiarities notwithstanding, it is a wonderful evening of singing and drama and I would happily sit through it again (facing the stage!).