sat 20/07/2019

Rusalka, Glyndebourne Festival review - away with the distressed fairies | reviews, news & interviews

Rusalka, Glyndebourne Festival review - away with the distressed fairies

Rusalka, Glyndebourne Festival review - away with the distressed fairies

Dvořák's late masterpiece richly revealed without the airy-fairy

Sally Mathews as an increasingly tormented Rusalka, with mermaid sistersImages by Tristram Kenton

When you think of the extravagant, violent, super grown-up subject-matter that stalked the operatic stage round about 1900 - the Toscas and the Salomes, the Cavs, the Pags and the rest of the verismo pack - you might find it strange to contemplate the ageing Dvořák still messing around with fairies at the bottom of his woodland pool, a subject that surely went out with the early Romantics. 

But you’d be wrong. His Rusalka is just as much a creature of the distressed mind as the heroine of Schoenberg’s Erwartung or, for that matter, Debussy’s Mélisande, who could well also be a stranded water nymph (we never find out). And this revival of Melly Still’s now ten year-old production rightly has no truck with the fay conventions of the romantic dream world, but, without denying the imagery, brings out the extreme menace, the coarseness and sometimes sheer nastiness that lurk just below the surface of what we’re pleased to call civilised life.

Dvořák had spent his twenties playing principal viola in the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre in Prague. He had played under Smetana and, on one notable occasion in 1863, Wagner. And he clearly, audibly, kept in touch with opera thereafter. Rusalka is an eclectic work, indebted to Wagner in harmony and symphonic technique, but with echoes, too, of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, even Verdi. Yet withal it remains an intensely Czech-feeling work: Czech folklore, folk music, even folk instrumentation, ring through this superbly crafted score. And the music has a range of character and an emotional sweep rare in Czech opera before Janáček. Wood nymphs in Act One of Glyndebourne's RusalkaStill’s production is similarly devoid of the airy-fairy. Her first act wood nymphs (pictured above) are about as sensuous as drunken karaoke singers at a Butlins Saturday night and a good deal more frightening, while Rusalka’s fellow water nymphs, dangling their twelve-foot mermaid’s tails from the flies, are beautiful, spine-chilling figments of a six year-old’s nightmares. No wonder Rusalka wants to escape into what she thinks of as the real world. 

Alas she can only do so without speech, her mouth closed - the witch Ježibaba warns her - to every human ear. The world of her Prince Charming and his (her) wedding guests is as uncontactable as in those dreams where one tries but can’t shout for help (Act Two pictured below). Melly Still lapses here into a certain crudity as Rusalka drops her knickers as the only way of distracting the Prince from her exotic rival, the Foreign Princess (Dvořák’s characters are all types without names). But she rises brilliantly to the great emotional climax of the final act, a Liebestod of quasi-Wagnerian power if purely Dvořákian colouring, but with many more characters to manoeuvre and a richly complex dramaturgy that if anything looks forward to Janáček’s Vixen as much as backward to Tristan. Sally Matthews in Act Two of RusalkaThe power of this ending is astonishing in the way it is both achieved and sustained, by a composer with no great reputation as a writer for the theatre. But it naturally depends on exceptional singers, and it finds them here. Sally Matthews grows in stature from a lovely performance of her Silver Moon aria, through the tormenting silences of her wedding feast, to the lyrical outpourings of the closing pages. She has evolved into an outstanding dramatic soprano, with a strong chest voice, masterly control and linkage throughout the range, and a compelling stage presence, not always ideally helped by Rae Smith’s (perhaps deliberately) unflattering costumes.

Her Prince, the American tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson (pictured below with Matthews), is hardly less impressive: aptly a full foot taller than his poor fairy bride, but matching her in lyric quality and, I suspect (not knowing the language) in feeling for the Czech idiom. Their final duet, ending with her kiss of death, is a wonderfully delicate, intimate climax to these elaborate, haunting goings-on. Prince and Rusalka at GlyndebourneThere is much else to praise. Alexander Roslavets makes of the Vodnik (Water Spirit) a figure both fearsome and, in an Alberich sort of way, grandly sympathetic. Colin Judson and Alex Le Saux are a witty foil, as the Gamekeeper and Scullery Maid who later tangle, Bottom-like, with the fairy element; Patricia Bardon makes something perhaps a shade too likeable of Ježibaba, a nicer witch, it’s true, than the one in Hansel and Gretel, which isn’t saying much. Zoya Tsererina does the most possible with the Foreign Princess, here directed as a sort of smart PA, if not quite such as to cause flutters of jealousy among the nymphs of the typing pool. The character is a failure of Dvořák’s, not Still’s; but she could perhaps be sexed up a touch more by the director.

Admirably upfront chorus nymphs (literally so as they shake their breasts in the refrains of their opening chorus), some clever dance acrobatics, and above all hugely eloquent, stylish orchestral playing by the LPO under Robin Ticciati, whom I last heard conducting Glyndebourne’s Pelléas at the Proms. His feeling for the shape and flow of this music of the early 1900s gets more and more complete, not least because these works may inhabit the same world but speak different languages: the Rusalka problem precisely, here, at least, solved.

Sally Matthews rises brilliantly to the great emotional climax of the final act, a Liebestod of quasi-Wagnerian power if purely Dvořákian colouring

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

Just one comment regarding Rusalka’s costumes... The wedding dress itself was a tour de force - restricting, constricting, unbalanced, made savage by those blood-red stilettos. Short so as to show of the wobbly, vulnerable, doe’s legs. A little gauche against the establishmentwear all around her. And that dreadful fishing net of a veil - ensnaring the mermaid. The dress darkened and disintegrated as the tragedy unfolded. And all you can say is “unflattering”? Really!?

Wow. Rusalka is a favourite opera of mine, but I have never heard it as well done as this. Amongst other performances of it, I saw the production at Glyndebourne 10 years ago, which was excellent, but not at this exalted level. And I have seen both Fleming and Netrebko in it (and, a few years back at Grange Park, a wonderful performance ans soprano whose name I am ashamed t say escapes me). But this performance was sensational ; the singing and playing were absolutely stunning. I cannot imagine a better performance. It HAS to be five stars - I cannot imagine what the cause of the "missing" star could possibly be (OK, the kitchen girl and unlcle were not quite world class, but that cannot be worth knocking off a star)

The soprano in question was Anne Sophie Duprels, now a firm Opera Holland Park favourite. Review is here: https://theartsdesk.com/opera/rusalka-grange-park-opera. And, yes, Rusalka is a favourite opera of mine. Spending four Mondays on it with the students of my Opera in Depth course at Pushkin House, I'm struck by how deep and fervent Dvořák's level of inspiration is throughout. Can't get it out of my head.

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