When Water Sprites Go Bad in Brussels

So why did I simultaneously find it
so eye-catching, and so terribly exasperating?

Let’s first look at the source material The Little Mermaid
story, as cleanly adapted by Jaroslav Kvapil and beautifully musicalized by
Antonin Dvoř·k, shall we? Mysterious, melancholic, bittersweet, it is a
journey prompted by our heroine’s romantic longing, deeply rooted in
nature, and marked by spiritual conflicts and the moral consequences of
love’s decisions. Dvoř·k’s masterful score somewhat loosely
strings together solos and ensembles, some of it folk-inspired, all of it
sublimely Romantic. And while the composer is never overtly programmatic, it
is hard to escape the evocation of the moon, the water, the elements.

Now let’s talk about Wunderkind director Stefan Herheim’s spin
on all this. Mr. Herheim has been building quite an impressive resume with
high profile productions, such as last summer’s Bayreuth
Parsifal. Based solely on this Rusalka, I fear that his
reputation exceeds him.

The colossal realistic stage setting (excellently realized by Heike
Scheele) seems to be an unidentified Belgian street corner, complete with a
subway entrance, church, corner store-slash-apartment building and an Edward
Hopper-like diner, alternately topped by a neon sign “Luna-tic”
or “Solaris.” With a nod to nature, a tree with copious drooping
branches fills one side of the street. The period is rather indeterminate,
but it seems to center mostly on the 60’s, if most of Gesine
Vˆllm’s witty costumes are any indication.

The curtain rises without music. A driving rainstorm with sound effects is
in progress. Commuters play out a bustling scene. A sympathetic street person
hawks flowers at the subway entrance, a couple wrestles with shopping bags,
and a youth with a violin case and a red hat asks directions to some address
or another. The action is full of detail. Then we find the scene being
exactly repeated with the same signature bits. And again. There had to have
been a full five minutes of this looped, repetitive pantomime.

And then. . .

A prostitute appears down left and poses on the proscenium. Lithe,
blond-wigged, in a silver lame mini-skirt, jacket and matching thigh-high
go-go boots, we have at last met our heroine. The music finally begins,
sounding jarringly out of sync with the visuals.

The Water Goblin here becomes a downtrodden, at times psychotic,
ax-wielding businessman, married to a red-dressed and -haired harridan, who
turns out to be the Foreign Princess. They live in a balconied flat over a
shop, in which graffiti-ed Rolladen open to reveal a show window that, over
the evening, is at times a sex shop with dancing inflatable dolls, a bridal
shop with three mannequins on display (one turns out to be Rusalka), or a
butcher shop hung with three dressed pigs (none of which thankfully turn out
to be anybody!).

The tortured Mr. Goblin is solicited by Rusalka on the way home, after
which he pretty much has this sexual dynamic going on with her throughout, at
one point chasing her, physically abusing her and beginning to rape her, only
to find that he can’t. (Whew, incest with his daughter was averted in a
show of rare restraint.)

During the “Song to the Moon,” Rusalka is elevated on a round
advertising kiosk that arises from the floor, with a sort of bubble-light
aquarium effect and a poster advertising “Poisson” cologne (it
later curiously turns to become a replica of Monnaie’s real poster
advertising this very performance). If you guessed that the
“Luna-tic” sign somehow figured into this aria, you figured
wrong. Instead, four satellite dishes on the buildings dipped toward Rusalka
in individually spotlit obeisance. In verse two, lighting effects (superb
work all night long by Wolfgang Gˆbbel) within the curtained apartments
clearly indicated that everyone was suddenly watching television.

This was important, since after Rusalka invokes the name of Jezibaba,
Water Goblin angrily hurls his box-style TV from the balcony to crash and
explode in red flames becoming, one must suppose, the stove with red flames
burning in the witch’s hut. Except there is no hut. Jezibaba is the
very masculine looking street person. And so the director’s
re-invention goes.

The Prince is a randy sailor returning home; the Gamekeeper in Act II here
becomes a Butcher; the Hunter, a pot-smoking Peace-nik; the Kitchen Boy is an
extra whose vocal part is taken instead by a Policeman; and if I have kept
this all straight, Act III’s Gamekeeper has become a Priest.

In Act II, when the Prince is flirting with and being tempted by the
Foreign Princess (who is Goblin’s wife, remember?), Rusalka passively
discovers them from the start in bed together in a boudoir set up right in
the street, an idea straight out of Evita’s Act I Harold
Prince Finale. The great wedding celebration (well-prepared by choral
director Piers Maxim) exceeds any Walpurgisnacht scene you can imagine with
the chorus women in cartoonishly detailed padded nude body suits with
distended buttocks, bloated bellies and drooping, pendulous breasts that
would not be out of place in an Otto Dix painting. Later on, the ladies put
on nun’s habits over this, but subsequently shuck them to copulate and
debauch. For those of you who longed for a return to this 80’s
Euro-stage-nun-as-bare-breasted-coitus-obsessed-saint-whore-cliche, well, it
must have brought a tear to your eye.

The men are in garish Carnival costumes, one sporting a focus-stealing
gigantic blue Afro, and there was enough gleaming foil confetti thrown to
smother Antwerp. Having dressed Goblin up as Neptune and given him a hand
mike, he and some revelers appeared in the house, engulfing us in confetti,
too. I was thanking my lucky stars I was not on the janitorial staff here. In
the midst of all of this, Rusalka flew in atop a crescent moon wearing a
dazzling silver dress, swathed in a sparkling blue cape, and looking like the
Virgin Mary. Soon, a retractable knife appeared and in due time several
leading characters got stabbed, staggered a bit, one actually fell
“dead” but then, no one ever died, but took their licking and
kept on ticking.

In Act III, there was, briefly, a pleasant projection of water effects on
a scrim that rose to the full height of the proscenium. But lest we get too
eager for a return to anything resembling the real story, it disappears and
as the three Water Spirits sing in their final tableau, deeply disturbed
Water Goblin stabs the Foreign (aka Mrs. Goblin) Princess to death in their
second floor bedroom (finally someone stayed dead) . At opera’s end, as
police tape off this crime scene and lead the killer away, Rusalka is back on
the street in her opening silver lame costume, soliciting another

The truly surprising thing about all of this is that as long as you
didn’t understand Czech or glance at the surtitles that were talking
about woods and trees and lakes and moons and, well, Kvapil’s
inconvenient story, this was highly entertaining visual theatre, with
well-defined character relationships (taken on their own terms), engaging
effects and dazzling technology. I have nothing but praise for the
hard-working stage manager and technicians who never missed a trick over a
long and complicated staging. Mirror panels rolled around, the diner tracked
in and out, stools rose and fell, the subway got re-dressed as a tobacco
shop, the church’s rose window spun, ditto the apartment facades. This
was an astounding, fantastical technical achievement in which the house can
take great pride.

In a way, we were getting two different shows for the price of one. For on
the musical side, the orchestra offered a secure, persuasive reading under
Adam Fischer’s experienced hand, playing with sensitivity and real
fire. Only the final stinging phrases of Act II seemed a little tame in an
otherwise passionate account. We were equally lucky with our first-rate

Lean, attractive Olga Guryakova is a near-perfect Rusalka, with a rich
throbbing lower and middle range, and a hint of metal in the hurled top notes
that rode the orchestra with fine results. She negotiated her famous aria
well, but although her piano high notes were skillfully floated they were not
her strongest suit. Willard White is in the golden years of a remarkable
career and his Water Goblin offered the usual persuasive musical instincts
and mellow, pleasantly grainy bass-baritone. The redoubtable Doris Soffel
never fails to give pleasure with her formidable voice and assured stage
presence. I did feel that at this point in her own long career, Jezibaba
stretched her to the limit and was not quite a perfect fit, with the awkward
passages at the break not always easily negotiated. As the Foreign Princess,
Stephanie Friede was somewhat hampered by a character interpretation that
made her even less sympathetic than usual, but she sang with steely
(occasionally edgy) tone and forceful conviction.

I felt that the principals were uniformly excellent in their dramatic
embodiment and they rose to the challenges Mr. Herheim posed them with an
uncommonly well-acted ensemble performance. However, this total immersion
into a violence driven concept also encouraged them to get heated up and
splay a top note here and there with a too-enthusiastic approach. Not so, the
terrific Prince of Burkhard Fritz. While always in the moment, Mr. Fritz
controlled his well-schooled (almost) Heldentenor and served up phrase after
phrase characterized by warm-voiced, technically secure vocalism.

The Three Nymphs, good time girls and regulars at the
“Luna-tic” Diner, were a delightful trio who not only blended
well, but were also vocally and visually distinctive: Olesya Golovneva, Young
Hee Kim, and Nona Javakhidze. Julian Hubbard (Hunter and Priest), AndrÈ
GrÈgoire (Butcher) and especially Marc Coulon (Policeman) made solid

So, on the one side we had considerable musical delights drawn by a
leading conductor from an orchestra in top form and a team of A-list
soloists. And on the other, we had a multi-talented production team being led
in a consistent, love-it-or-hate-it-can’t-look-away-from-it vision by a
director of substantial gifts. Hmmmm. . .

It has to be conceded that Brussels’ Rusalka is a wholly
professional, brilliant, edgy, production. It just happens to be the wrong

James Sohre

image_description=Rusalka, De Munt/La Monnaie Opera
product_title=AntonÌn Dvo?·k: Rusalka
product_by=Rusalka (Olga Guryakova, Michaela Kaune (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); Prins (Burkhard Fritz, Ludovit Ludha (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); Vreemde prinses (Stephanie Friede, Anda-Louise Bogza (7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21/12)); VodnÌk (Willard White, Frode Olsen (7, 13 16, 17/12)); Jeûibaba (Doris Soffel, Livia Budai (7, 10, 13, 20/12)), Jager (Julian Hubbard); Eerste bosnimf (Olesya Golovneva); Tweede bosnimf (YoungHee Kim); Derde bosnimf (Nona Javakhidze); Slager (AndrÈ GrÈgoire); Agent (Marc Coulon). De Munt/La Monnaie Opera. Conducting: Adam Fischer, Richard Lewis (13/12). Director: Stefan Herheim.