Barcelona’s Magnificent Atrocious Hersalka

SpainSpain A. Dvořák, Rusalka: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Barcelona’s Liceu, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 11.1.2013 (JMI)

Co-production Brussels’s Théâtre de la Monnaie and Oper Graz

Direction: Stefan Herheim
Sets: Heike Scheele
Costumes: Gesine Völm
Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel

Rusalka: Camilla Nylund
Prince: Klaus Florian Vogt
Vodnik: Günther Groissböck
Jezibaba: Ildiko Komlosi
Foreign Princess: Emily Magee
Hunter/Priest: Marc Canturri

Picture courtesy Barcelona's Liceu, © Antoni Bofill
Picture courtesy Barcelona’s Liceu, © Antoni Bofill

Barcelona’s fantastic opening week (see reviews of Iolanta and Il Pirata) ended with this performance of Rusalka, not seen at the Liceu since 1965 when a Czech company toured Western Europe. It would seem to me that waiting 48 years for an opera as exceptional as Rusalka is too long, especially since the rest of Spain doesn’t exactly pick up the Rusalka slack: The last performance I remember was at Bilbao in October 2005, in a beautiful production by Claude Berutti, with Jiří Kout on the podium and Sondra Radvanovsky as Rusalka. [Editor: A production the then-Vice President of the Bilbao opera, José Mª Irurzun, might have had a hand in bringing over from Lyon.]

Despite being little known in Barcelona, the ​​Liceu decided to offer a modern, “conceptual” production, which would seem better suited to more familiar works. Because of this, I’m afraid that many in the audience left the theatre wondering what the opera was about.

Norwegian Stefan Herheim is one of the most sought-after directors of recent years, especially after his production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. He is a smart director, original, and with an in-depth knowledge of the opera’s scores, which is not always so obvious with many of his colleagues.

His is a very individualistic reading of Rusalka, avoiding the story of the nymph in love with a human and the emphasis on nature and the supernatural. Instead we are introduced to Rusalka—“Nymph”, in Czech—as a prostitute in the slums of a maritime city, who falls in love with her sailor customer and wants to leave her miserable world. Of course, it ends badly with her returning to her old line of work.

Unfortunately Herheim gives prominence to the sub-plot of her father (and pimp), Vodnik (or Spirit of the Waters), who seems to be reliving his own past. These two overlapping stories require the continuous presence of Vodnik on stage, sometimes as a double of the Prince, and this did evidently not help the audience to understand the plot, as evidenced by the comments I overheard during the intervals.

available at Amazon
A.Dvořák, Rusalka,
T.Hanus / Bavarian State Orchestra & Chorus
K.Opolais, K.F.Vogt, G.Groissböck, N.Krasteva
Director: Martin Kušej
Unitel blu-ray

Mr Herheim’s view has not all that much to do with Dvořák’s music and we end up with a Hersalka more than a Rusalka. This also means that Herheim has to replace some characters (e.g. The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy) with new ones, making arbitrary cuts in the score in the third act, and in the last act bringing back the Foreign Princess, who even sings a few of Rusalka’s phrases. For me, that’s far to interventionist an approach. A stage director should not alter the libretto or score in order to present his own vision of the work. In this case it would have been better to say that the opera was by Stefan Herheim, based on a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, and accompanied by music composed by Dvořák for his opera Rusalka.

Apart from his own dramaturgy, the production by Stefan Herheim—premiered at Brussels’ La Monnaie in March last year—is actually superb. Both from a purely aesthetic point of view and in terms of stage direction, we witnessed the work of an artist who has produced a play at the highest level. The sets place the action in a street in the slums of a city, with a hostess bar on the left and a sex shop to the right. With minimal changes—but those done very well—the same street offers the more bourgeois atmosphere of the second act: a stylish bar on the left and a boutique Pro Nuptiae to the right. We return to the original neighborhood in the last act. The costumes are very nicely done; particularly amusing those of the three Nymphs and the chorus. The lighting work is outstanding and the judicious video projections of water motifs spectacular.

What stands out above all is the stage direction. All the characters are well crafted, including the chorus and the extras, and come together to give a sense of a powerful stage work. Herheim changes the Prince’s party into a dream of Rusalka’s where she sees her sailor as a Prince in a kind of Carnival celebration, which takes place both on stage and in the stalls of the theatre.

The best part of this performance was the musical direction by British conductor Sir Andrew Davis, currently chief conductor of Chicago Lyric Opera, returning to the Liceu after his debut in this house with a concert version of Thaïs in 2007 that included Renée Fleming (see S&H review here). Sir Andrew’s reading was delicate and inspired, and he got one of the best performances in my memory from the Liceu Orchestra. Kudos also to the Chorus, singing and dancing in this production while wearing the Botero-inspired costumes. The cuts and changes in libretto and score, I didn’t like, of course. If Davis prefers Herheim’s version to Dvorak’s, we have a problem; if it has been imposed on him, that’s even worse. The cast contained plenty stellar names, and they all shone in their dramatic performances. In vocal terms, unfortunately, not so much.

Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund gave a remarkable interpretation of Rusalka, but was not too convincing vocally. Her soprano is most comfortable in the upper register, but hasn’t got a big middle range and her low notes are weak. Her timbre is impersonal, which is a problem in this rôle.

Klaus Florian Vogt as the Prince (well, he was a Prince in the original libretto at least) is a tenor who leaves no one indifferent. His voice is very white and not necessarily well suited to every characters he sings. I have enjoyed his performances of Lohengrin on many occasions, ditto his Walther or Parsifal, all out of this world and not heroic characters in the straightforward sense. In other characters, such as Siegmund, Florestan, and also the Prince, his voice isn’t adequate, although there is no doubt that he is an excellent singer. Besides questions about his suitability for the rôle, Vogt has been singing parts very demanding on his middle range and today his notes above high A put him in serious difficulties, as we found out during the final scene of the opera.

Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was the star of this production in the rôle of Vodnik, but while his stage performance was beyond reproach, his voice was without the fullness the character requires. His low notes have little consistency and his middle range is short on authority.

Ildiko Komlosi’ Jezibaba plays an important role in this production as a florist in the subway. No objections about her tip-top interpretation, but vocally she was not very engaging; tight at the top and lacking in the lower register.

Emily Magee’s Foreign Princess—or whatever she was in this production—did not convince me vocally. This character is very difficult to cover because its tessitura is between a dramatic soprano and a mezzo, and Miss Magee lacks those characteristics. Her voice was poorly projected and her low notes quite inadequate.

The three mermaids are prominent in this production, which they might as well have been, since they acted very well on stage. Vocally the best was Vanessa Goikoetxea; Kim Young Hee had a very small voice though, and mezzo Nona Javakhidze too, was rather lacking vocally. These vocal shortcomings notwithstanding, this was a fine performance of a magnificent production by an outstanding director. Now if only he staged his own works, leaving others to produce works as they were written…

José Mª Irurzun