No Fairy Tale Lyricism in ROH’s Disturbing Rusalka

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Dvořák, Rusalka: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Opera / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 27.2.2012. (JPr)

Act II – the Prince, Rusalka and the Foreign Princess. Photo Clive Barda

This dark, psychological, nightmarish production of Antonin Dvořák’s ‘lyric fairytale’ Rusalka by the Swiss-German partnership of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito that is new to Covent Garden received mixed opinions when given its first-ever staging at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. In fact this is the Royal Opera’s first full staging of this work too and while the soloists were cheered by those who had not left because of the late finish, the production team did not fare so well. Rusalka is Dvořák’s most admired and most frequently performed opera – above all in his Czech homeland – where it has been performed almost continually since its 1901 première even if it is seen rather less often in the West. In the UK there was David Pountney’s Freudian 1983 interpretation for English National Opera and a couple of concert performances by the Royal Opera in 2003, new productions at Grange Park in 2008 and Glyndebourne in 2009 – and that’s about it.

Jarosalav Kvapil’s libretto, based on the fairytales of Karol Jaromír Erben’s and Božena Němcová, was finished in 1899 before he had any contact with the composer. The plot involves a Rusalka – a water nymph from Slavic mythology that usually lives in a lake or river – who yearns to become human so that she can marry the handsome Prince with whom she has fallen in love. The story contains certain elements familiar from The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Kvapil began looking for composers interested in setting his text and it was mentioned to him that Dvořák was looking for a project. The composer, always interested in Erben’s stories, began a first draft on 22 April 1900 and completed the opera by the end of November. Dvořák had previously composed four symphonic poems inspired by the folk-ballads of Erben in the late 1890s so Rusalka has been considered by Max Loppert as the culmination of his exploration of a ‘wide variety of drama-creating musical techniques’.

Though the libretto does some of the work for them, Wieler and Morabito turn the romance and ‘happy ever after world’ of the fairytale into something far more disturbing and horrible than even these can sometimes be. Morabito is reported as saying:  ‘It’s about shattered illusions. The human world which Rusalka yearns so much to be part of has, in reality, nothing to do with her dreams. She encounters such coldness and cruelty, and it proves a shock from which she never recovers.’ This could be taken as a metaphor for many, often young, girls  who flee the relative safety of their homeland and all into the hands of sex traffickers whilst seeking their happiness and fortunes elsewhere.

Of course there is no lake in this production for Rusalka to emerge from as in the libretto, but she struggles out, complete with mermaid’s tail, from a sewer at the centre-front of the stage and through the curtain into ‘the human world’. Rusalka sings her famous ‘Song to the Moon’, asking it to tell the Prince of her love and seeks out the witch, Ježibaba, here portrayed as an indigent person with a bad leg and wheeled walking frame. She tells Rusalka that if she becomes human and is betrayed by the Prince, they will both be eternally damned, and that another cost to Rusalka will be that she loses the power of speech. With the aid of her ‘familiar’ a large black cat figure – that has to be seen to be believed – Rusalka agrees to the witch’s conditions and drinks a potion to bring this about. This black cat (derived from Czech mythology) blow-dries the now-human Rusalka with a hairdryer! She then first appears, tottering on high heels, to her Prince as the spitting image – for British audiences – of former glamour model and self-styled ‘rich chav’, Katie Price.

At the end of the almost three-and-a-half hour (and seemingly longer) evening, the unhappy ‘heroine’ who has been abused and abandoned who commits suicide and is left as a ‘bludička’, a spirit of death, doomed to emerge only at night to lure humans to their death (like Willis from Giselle). Rusalka lifts the manhole cover and disposes of her unfaithful Prince’s corpse down the very same drain from which she first emerged. In Dvořák’s original, Rusalka does not stab herself and die as she does here but is condemned to eternal damnation – and the Prince with her.

Rusalka’s sexual awakening and her failure to win the Prince’s heart when confronted by the allure of a Foreign Princess sees her banished to the most loveless of places – and sadly the destination of many seeking that better world in a foreign country – a garishly red, seedy brothel. She is shown alongside the rest of the outcasts from ‘society’, the witch Ježibaba now the Madam, Vodník (Rusalka’s Water Goblin father) who has lost the flippers he first appears in, and three scantily clad, always sexually explicit, Wood Nymphs. This is a society – perhaps a little like Switzerland possibly and certainly Britain – that is moralistic and sexually repressed. Here religion ‘demonises’ a genuine biological function and its natural act, so a crucifix plays a major part in the visual imagery Wieler and Morabito show us in Barbara Ehnes’s vivid set designs. (Indeed with her haunted final appearance clutching a crucifix, ‘heroin’ might be more appropriate than ‘heroine’ for Rusalka at this point and totally fitting the directors’ conception.) Wieler and Morabito have already used an associated ‘sacrificial lamb’ idea when the Gamekeeper finds the Kitchen Boy gutting a dead sheep on the floor and is smeared in its blood. This will be the very spot where Rusalka turns a knife on herself. The bible is brandished at Rusalka at one point and we also see the statue of a saint.

Elsewhere, Chris Kondek’s video designs help project more of the fairytale elements of the story, the forest, water and the creatures that live in and above it, as well as, the flotsam and jetsam that drifts about in it. This helps to emphasise the supernatural juxtaposition of the two worlds we encounter. I believe – perhaps because I have seen this production twice – that I understand the Konzept better than some of those who will comment on this staging.

Dvořák is, of course, well known as a symphonist and there are some ravishing melodies to be heard in the opera. The young Canadian conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a Wunderkind from the concert podium and the extended running time for this performance – some 20 minutes longer than advertised – suggests he lingered over its seductive allure just a little too much. On the plus side, there was a homogeneous sound to the orchestra that I believe I last heard with Semyon Bychkov wielding the baton for Lohengrin at Covent Garden in 2009.

I must take issue with the Royal Opera’s printed programme and David Beveridge’s assertion that despite Dvořák taking inspiration from Wagner   ‘…nevertheless, there is scarcely a passage in Rusalka that one could imagine as actually having been composed by Wagner.’ Before the singing starts we hear a direct quote from Siegfried Act II and we heard the ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ from Das Rheingold a number of times, amongst other borrowings.

Camilla Nylund and Alan Held reprised their 2008 performances from Salzburg. Nylund’s Rusalka was dramatically utterly convincing in her passionate desire, tragic disappointment and ultimately disillusionment but her voice is essentially small in scale and she faded at times. She seemed unable to always cut through Dvořák’s lush orchestration – or perhaps Nézet-Séguin’s accompaniment is a little loud at some climaxes? Held catches the eye as an authoritative Vodník who through his baleful off-stage pronouncements seemed suitably paternal. His chasing of the attention-grabbing trio of Wood Nymphs (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) was also straight out of Rheingold. His American compatriot, Bryan Hymel was a tireless, ringing, Prince and the smallest roles, the Huntsman (Daniel Grice), Gamekeeper (Gyula Orendt) and Kitchen Boy (Ilse Eerens) were cast from strength.

Agnes Zwierko was a dowdy, suitably cackling Ježibaba and somewhat less evil than she is sometimes portrayed. Sweeping all before her with a flick of her long string of pearls was Petra Lang’s imperious vignette as the malevolent and conniving Foreign Princess who commanded the stage with every short appearance. Her voice now goes smoothly from contralto depths to dramatic soprano heights and she was just warming up when her role was over. Petra Lang sounded as though she might be capable of singing Ježibaba and the Foreign Princess in one evening. Now that would be a performance to be at.

Jim Pritchard

Performances of Rusalka continue at Covent Garden until 14th March 2012. For further information visit