Rusalka: Opera as a Sublime Art

AustriaAustria Dvořák: Rusalka, Wiener Staatsoper orchestra and chorus, Tomas Netopi  conductor), Vienna Staatsoper, 13.9.2014 (JMI).

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Rusalka Bezsmertna-Beczala

Cast:
Rusalka: Olga Bezsmertna
Prince: Piotr Beczala
Vodnik, the Water Goblin: Günther Groissböck
Ježibaba: Janina Baechle
Foreign Princess: Monika Bohinec
Nymphs: Valentina Nafornita, Ulrike Helzel, Ilseyar Khayrullova
Kitchen Boy: Stephanie Houtzeel
Gamekeeper: Gabriel Bermúdez
Hunter: Mihail Dogotari

Production: Wiener Staatsoper
Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Sets: Rolf Glittenberg
Costumes: Marianne Glittenberg
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann



This excellent performance reached a level rarely achieved in a theater. Both the music and the voices were outstanding, and that rare guest, emotion, was also present. When emotion is part of a performance, opera becomes a sublime art.

The production, which bears the signature of Sven-Eric Bechtolf, had its premiere last January. This is a fairly traditional work, but there are some superficial and unfortunate personal touches. The set focuses the action on two levels divided by a platform; a large window dominates the human world on the upper level, and the “aquatic” world, a snowy field with some bushes, lies below. In Acts I and III, the characters wander about the lower level; in Act II we are in the human world where poor Rusalka in a large bed dreams the fantasies and fears that are interpreted by the principal dancers. The least acceptable twist is that Ježibaba kills the Kitchen Boy and the Gamekeeper, with the former devoured by Ježibaba and the Nymphs in a strange scene of cannibalism. The costumes work reasonably well, with some exaggerated wigs for the Nymphs and Water Goblin. All in all, the stage production succeeds.

The musical direction was entrusted to Tomas Netopil, who gave an outstanding reading. Mr. Netopil’s conducting had all the ingredients required to show the beauty of this masterpiece by Dvořák, with emotion ever-present. It was the most convincing performance I’ve heard from him, and he has proved that he is an excellent maestro. Under his baton was the orchestra of the Wiener Staatoper, whose quality is unquestionable. For me, it was the best performance by this magnificent orchestra during my trip to Vienna. The chorus was correct in their short contribution, but below what they offered the day before in Wagner.

Rusalka was supposed to have been played by soprano Kristine Opolais, but she cancelled and was replaced by Olga Bezsmertna, who has been part of the Vienna opera ensemble for the last two years. There’s no doubt that Kristine Opolais is a great artist on stage, but I’m convinced that we gained in vocal terms with the change. Olga Bezsmertna is a young soprano with an attractive lyric voice, outstanding at the top and perhaps a little short at the bottom. Cancellations have historically been occasions for great singers to make themselves known to the public, and today that experience was repeated. She left a very positive impression, and I’m sure we’ll hear more of her in the near future.

Piotr Beczala was the Prince, and he too was excellent. His middle range is now wider, but he maintains the beauty of his timbre, and there is still a good balance between registers. He sang with exquisite taste; it is not easy to think of a better Prince.

Günther Groissböck was an outstanding interpreter of the character of the Water Goblin, a role that has become his warhorse. Emotion and quality were always present in his singing.

From the rest of the cast I should mention the powerful Foreign Princess of soprano Monika Bohinec. Her voice could be rather metallic but is perfectly suited to this role. She would make an excellent Eboli. Finally, Janina Baechle was Ježibaba, and she was very good although better at the low notes than at the top, where she is a little tight.

In the secondary characters I must cite the excellent performance of the nymphs, played by a brilliant Valentina Nafornita acompanied by Ulrike Helzel and Ilseyar Khayrullova. Stephanie Houtzeel was good as the Kitchen Boy, while Gabriel Bermúdez as the Gamekeeper exhibited better vocal projection than on other occasions.

The Staatsoper was again sold out. The audience gave a triumphal reception to the artists, particularly to Olga Bezsmertna, Piotr Beczala and Günther Groissböck. Monika Bohinec was also greeted at the end of the second act. Tomas Netopil deseved the cheers he received.

José Mª Irurzun

1 thought on “<i>Rusalka</i>: Opera as a Sublime Art”

  1. I am most familiar with the opera and find this outrageous production beyond any distortion of an opera I’ve ever witnessed. This is a work conceived by the composer a short time before he died, portraying a fairy tale loosely based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, Little Mermaid. I saw it when I was a child of seven and was enticed to opera ever since. The costumes were completely out of place, the dark haired Rusalka and the water nymphs were morbidly dressed in black, so was the Jezibaba and the prince. The game keeper was running around half naked. The scenery was dull without making any sense (just two large tree trunks). The castle was no better, mainly a large window instead of being opulent, beautiful. The action had nothing in common with little nymphs seducing and teasing the Water Gnome in the first act. The soprano sounded more like a Valkyrie than a frail little nymph. And the sex scene portrayed without good taste by two solo dancers instead of group of guests dancing the polonaise was completely out of place and unnecessary. Jezibaba looked nothing like a witch which is the normal way she is presented in most productions today. In the last act the prince, who is to die in the arms of Rusalka is in fact choked to death. The orchestra playing was remarkable and the conductor deserves credit for the performance not being an absolute failure. The glorious music remains untouched by the tasteless manipulation of the production.

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