Rusalka, Royal Opera

Rusalka_ROH_2012_02.gifAgnes Zwierko as Jeûibaba and Camilla Nylund as Rusalka

That is not to say that any production meeting with hostility qualifies as
interesting; some, of course, are simply not very good, or worse. Yet, it seems
that only the most vapid, unchallenging — and yes, I realise that the word
‘challenging’ is a red rag to self-appointed ‘traditionalist’ bulls —
of productions will garner approval from the ranks of the petite
. The boorish behaviour of those who booed this
Rusalka equates more or less precisely to the sort of antics they
would condemn if they occurred on the street — the work of ‘hoodlums’,
the ‘lower classes’, the ‘uneducated’, ‘rioters’, ‘immigrants’,
et al. — yet somehow unwillingness or inability to think, the fascistic
refusal to consider an alternative point of view, the threat of mob violence,
becomes perfectly acceptable when one has paid the asking price for what they
consider to be their rightful ‘entertainment’. They would no more bother to
understand, to explore, to question, Rusalka were it depicted in the
most ‘traditional’ of fashions, of course, but they explode at the mere
suggestion that a work and a performance might ask something of them. For, as
John Stuart Mill famously noted, ‘Although it is not true that all
conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are
conservative.’ Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ —
‘emotionalisation’, not abdication! — remains as foreign a country to
them as it did to the Jockey Club thugs who prevented Tannh‰user from
being performed in Paris; at least one might claim that the latter were having
to deal with challenging ‘new music’, Zukunftsmuik, even. Here
they were faced with an opera by Dvo?·k, first performed in 1901, in a
staging that would barely raise an eyebrow in most German house or festivals.
(The production, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, hails initially from the
Salzburg Festival.) It would be interesting to know how many of those booing
had selfishly, uncomprehendingly disrupted a recent
Marriage of Figaro in the same house
by erupting into laughter at
the very moment Count Almaviva sought forgiveness from the Countess. (There was
also, bizarrely, to be heard at the opening of the third act a shouted call
from a member of the audience for a ‘free’ Quebec.)

Rusalka_ROH_2012_03.gifScene from Rusalka

What, then, was it that incurred the wrath of the Tunbridge Wells beau
? I can only assume that it was for the most part Barbara Ehnes’s
sets, since the stage direction (presumably a good part of it from revival
director, Samantha Seymour) was more often that not quite in harmony with the
urgings and suggestions of Dvo?·k’s score. (The hostile rarely if ever
listen to the music; at best, they follow the surtitles and bridle at
deviations from what they imagine the stage directions might have been.) Even
modern dress is mixed with a sense of the magical, the environment of Jeûibaba
the witch a case in point. There is even a cat, played both in giant form by
Claire Talbot, and in real form, by — a cat, ‘Girlie’. What is real, and
what is not? Collision between spirit and human worlds is compellingly brought
to life, the devils and demons of a heathen past, including Slavonic river
spirits (rusalki) come to tempt, to question, to lay bare the
delusions of moralistic, bigoted modernity. Just as modern ‘love’ and
marriage’ quickly boil down to money and power, so VodnÌk the water goblin
finds his tawdry place of temptation whilst issuing his moralistic warnings.
(Did the audience see itself reflected in the mirror? Perhaps, though I doubt
that it even bothered to think that far.) Our ideas of Nature having been
hopelessly compromised by what we have become, we ‘naturally’ see the world
of rusalki from within the comforts of our hypocritical bordello. Who
is exploiting whom, and who is ‘impure’? The souls of women who have
committed suicide and of stillborn children — there are various accounts of
who the rusalki actually are — or those who shun them in life and in
death? Wieler and Morabito do not offer agitprop; rather they allow us to ask
these questions of the work, and of ourselves. But equally importantly, they
permit a sense of wonder to suffuse what remains very much a fairy tale,
realism coexisting with, being corrected by, something older, more mysterious,
more dangerous, and perhaps ultimately liberating. Chris Kondek’s video
designs, not unlike the hydroelectric dam of Patrice ChÈreau’s
‘Centenary’ Ring, both suggest Nature and through their necessary
technological apparatus remind us of our distance from any supposed ‘Golden
Age’, just as the opening scene will inevitably suggest to us Alberich, the
Rhinemaidens, and the power of the erotic. (Wagner used the term

Rusalka_ROH_2012_04.gifBryan Hymel as Prince and Petra Lang as Foreign Princess

Musical performances were equally strong, in many respects signalling a
triumph for Covent Garden. First and foremost should be mentioned Yannick
NÈzet-SÈguin, making his Royal Opera debut. The orchestra played for him as
if for an old friend, offering a luscious, long-breathed Romanticism that made
it sound a match — as, on its best days, it is — for any orchestra in the
world. Magic was certainly to be heard: the sound of Dvo?·k’s harps again
took me back to Das Rheingold — and to Bernard Haitink’s tenure at
the house. Ominous fate was brought into being with similar conviction and
communicative skill. Above all, NÈzet-SÈguin conveyed both a necessary sense
of direction and a love for the score’s particular glories. If there are
times when Dvo?·k might benefit from a little more, at least, of
Jan·?ek’s extraordinary dramatic concision, it would take a harder heart
than mine to eschew the luxuriance on offer both in score and performance.
Crucially, staging and performance interacted so that the contrast between
worlds on stage intensified that in the pit, and vice versa.

Camilla Nylund shone in the title role. At times, especially during the
first act, one might have wondered whether her voice would prove to have the
necessary heft, but it did, and Nylund proved herself an accomplished actress
into the bargain. Bryan Hymel may not be the most exciting of singers; the
voice is not especially variegated. However, he proved dependable, and often a
great deal more, the final duet as moving as one could reasonably expect. Alan
Held was everything a VodnÌk should be: baleful, threatening, sincere, and yet
perhaps not quite. The Spirit of the Lake may well have his own agenda — and
certainly did here. Agnes Zwierko played the witch Jeûibaba with wit, menace,
and a fine sense of hypocrisy that brought the closed environments of
Jan·?ek’s dramas to mind. The four Jette Parker Young Artists
participating, nymphs Anna Devin, Madeleine Perard, and Justina Gringyte, and
Huntsman Daniel Grice all acquitted themselves with glowing colours. Indeed,
Grice’s solo, enveloped by miraculous Freisch¸tz-like horns from
the orchestra, movingly evoked a world of lost or never-existent woodland
innocence. Last but not least, Petra Lang’s Foreign Princess emerged, like
Wagner’s Ortrud, as in some respects the most truthful, as well as the most
devious, character of all. Splendidly sung and acted, Lang’s was a
performance truly to savour. But then, this was a performance as a whole that
was far more than the sum of its parts, a triumphant return to form for Covent
Garden with its first ever staging of the work.

Mark Berry

image_description=Camilla Nylund as Rusalka [Photo by Clive Barda/ROH]
product_title=AntonÌn Dvo?·k: Rusalka
product_by=Rusalka: Camilla Nylund; Foreign Princess: Petra Lang; Prince: Bryan Hymel; Jeûibaba: Agnes Zwierko; VodnÌk: Alan Held; Huntsman: Daniel Grice; Gamekeeper: Gyula Orendt; Kitchen Boy: Ilse Eerens; Wood Nymphs: Anna Devin, Justina Gringyte, Madeleine Pierard; Mourek: Claire Talbot. Directors: Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito; Revival Director: Samantha Seymour; Set Designs: Barbara Ehnes; Costumes: Anja Rabes; Lighting: Olaf Freese; Video Designs: Chris Kondek; Choreography: Altea Garrido. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/ Yannick NÈzet-Seguin (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 27 February 2012.
product_id=Above: Camilla Nylund as Rusalka

Photos by Clive Barda/ROH