fri 23/02/2024

Rusalka, Royal Opera review - ravishing sounds, torpid staging | reviews, news & interviews

Rusalka, Royal Opera review - ravishing sounds, torpid staging

Rusalka, Royal Opera review - ravishing sounds, torpid staging

Fine musicianship undermined by too little meaning and motivation in the production

Rusalka (Asmik Grigorian) in limbo, pursued by her Prince (David Butt Philip)Camilla Greenwell

Psychological depths in the myth of the water nymph who yearns for the human world, with disastrous results, have led to some unusual settings for Dvořák’s operatic masterpiece on the theme: a nursery, a hotel room (both successful), a brothel (not so much). What, though, when a production returns to the fairy-tale, developing at the same time the ecological devastation implied in the opera?

Well, Melly Still at Glyndebourne did just that - and without featuring what looks here like the filthy underside of a toilet seat in the deracinated setting of the third act. It’s difficult for those of us seriously in love with her take to warm to a similar but far less vivid one from directors Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee (who also choreographs). The start is so meltingly full of promise: translucent heartbreak from the Royal Opera Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov, then a vision of Rusalka swimming with the Prince who’s been drawn to the forest pool where she lives. The recurrences of the water ballet at the beginning and end of the third act are also beautiful to look at. The rest, not so much. Those of us who remember Still’s feral, romping Wood Spirits can’t be satisfied with the three and their pallid dance doubles here (Vuvu Mpofu, Gabriele Kupšyte and Anne Marie Stanley pictured below by Bill Knight with Aleksei Isaev as the Water Goblin). Scene from Royal Opera RusalkaTheir costumes, and the cloaks of Rusalka and her father the Water Goblin, resonantly sung by Aleksei Isaev but totally devoid of any characterisation, took me back to a kitschy Soviet-era Prague production. The dressing-up, by Annemarie Woods, doesn’t get better; Chloe Lamford’s sets in the outer acts show a fantasy natural world – using sustainable materials, like Still's also problematic Glyndebourne production of Smyth's The Wreckers – despoliated by the time of Rusalka’s fall, which is fine; the middle act crams the Prince’s palace into two rectangles, not so good (though the dancing is better here – and I liked the idea of witch Ježibaba, Rothbart-like, having a hand in the black-clad malevolence of the court). The constant success in the look of it all is the hugely experienced Paule Constable’s lighting, catching opalescent gleams in the depths of the forest and ideal near-darkness for the underwater prefaces and epilogue.

Act One is soporific here, despite the instant engagement of Asmik Grigorian’s Rusalka and the magisterial presence of Sarah Connolly as Ježibaba, no malevolent crone but a proud she-devil redhead (repurposed in the cast list as "a wise, eternal spirit"). Grigorian’s pure lyric soprano eventually rises to bigger vocal demands by sheer force of dramatic personality, and her artistry is undoubted, though for the first time ever seeing this opera I wasn’t moved, least of all by the celebrated Song to the Moon; Bychkov rather draws attention to the flexibility of his conducting, though he makes sure by clear signs to the stage that the singers go with him, and the woodwind solos often doubling the voice are ravishingly beautiful. Connolly (pictured below by Bill Knight with attendant little devils) comes into her own in the third act, lustrously commanding.Sarah Connolly in RusalkaSo too does David Butt Philip, our very own tenor hitting the world stage this season with a crazy abundance of roles. He’s under-directed in Act Two, and there are moments of upper-register bottling which I hope don’t spell trouble ahead, but he has no problem with producing the richest low and high tones in the hypnotic final duet, one of the great operatic endings.

Emma Bell just about gets away with what’s needed for the passionate Foreign Princess (here described as a Duchess, "the Prince’s political equal"). It’s good to see and hear so many excellent young singers, two of them on the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists programme, in smaller but far from negligible roles. All deserve a mention: Ross Ramgobin and Hogni Wu providing light relief, nimbly supported by Bychkov and the orchestra, as forester and servant (pictured below by Bill Knight); Josef Jeongmeen Ahn, resonant offstage in the huntsman’s song; Vuvu Mpofu, Gabriele Kupšyte and Anne Marie Stanley as the Wood Spirits, vocally lustrous if dramatically underused (and surely if nature is deracinated all around them in Act Three, these dryads should have lost their bobbly green?) Scene from Royal Opera RusalkaWe may have been spoiled by the absolute dramatic purpose of every move in Richard Jones’s truly offbeat take on Wagner’s The Rhinegold over at ENO, but there really isn’t enough focused energy in the direction here, and no amount of good singing and great conducting can disguise that.

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