Excellent Rusalka at Berlin’s Komische Oper Shows Benefits of the Repertoire System

GermanyGermany Dvořák, Rusalka (sung in German): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: David Cavelius) of the Komische Oper, Berlin / Henrik Nánási (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 30.10.2016. (MB)

Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.
Komische Oper’s Rusalka (c) Monika Rittershaus.

Rusalka – Nadja Mchantaf
Prince – Timothy Richards
Ježibaba – Nadine Weissmann
Vodník – Jens-Erik Aasbø
Foreign Princess – Karolina Gumos
Gamekeeper – Ivan Turšić
Kitchen Boy – Christiane Oertel
First Wood Nymph – Annika Gerhards
Second Wood Nymph – Maria Fiselier
Third Wood Nymph – Katarzyna Włodarczyk
Huntsman –Johannes Dunz
Ježibaba’s Son – Marcus Wagner

Barrie Kosky (director)
Anisha Bondy (revival director)
Klaus Grünberg (set designs, lighting)
Klaus Bruns (costumes)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)

I shall not beat about the bush: this was just what opera should be. It convinced this sceptic that a repertoire system can not only work, but can work uncommonly well. Barrie Kosky’s intelligent, thoughtful production, Henrik Nánási’s similarly intelligent conducting of the excellent Komische Oper orchestra, and a splendid cast (with a true star, in the best rather than the ‘celebrity’ sense, in the title role) combined to enchant, to challenge, and to move. There is an openness to the production and performance typical of so much of the best opera at the moment

It is only a certain class of reactionary adults who will refer to something as ‘just’ being a fairy tale. Children and thoughtful adults know that the world of the fairy tale is dark indeed. (And yet, the number of anodyne productions of Hänsel und Gretel the world must suffer continues to grow! Thank goodness for bold exceptions, such as that of Liam Steel earlier this year, for the Royal College of Music.) Look closely, or even just permit yourself to be receptive, and you will find that it is all there: sex, violence, sorrow, tragedy. The Grimm Brothers and other collectors were not interested in an adult’s sentimental creation of ‘childhood’. Nor, however, were they out to shock. They did their collecting, their editing; they certainly were not passive. But they wanted to let the tales speak in some sense – however illusory this idea may be as an ‘absolute’ – ‘for themselves’. So, I think, does Kosky here, mediated, as it most likely must be, via the nineteenth century, in which the opera was (just!) written, and of course by what has happened since. Indeed, an interview with Kosky and Patrick Lange – the conductor, I presume, when the production was new, in 2012 – opens with Kosky declaring: ‘Rusalka muss ein Märchen sein!’ (‘Rusalka must be a fairy tale.’)

And so, without danger of prettification or ‘mere’ folklore or folklorism, the story is, with great strength, quite without varnish, placed centre stage, literally and figuratively. Klaus Grünberg’s set design unfussily suggests the Komische Oper’s interior itself; we are all staging, after all, not least those of us in the audience. The cold elegance, moreover, of the late Victorian wall and, crucially, door – that is where, even how, things change, the action moves on – is all the framing we really need. We concentrate on the wood nymph herself and her plight. Above all, her mermaid’s tail, with which she struggles in such heart-rending fashion, leaving her desperate to become ‘human’, only for matters to become worse when she does, sears itself into the memory, as does the fish skeleton that emerges from within following the shocking butchery of the witch, Ježibaba. A (Danse) macabre convention of skeletons, spirits of death, and so on we see in the third act (of the opera ‘itself’, for here, we have only one interval) chills without undue grotesquerie; all is very much in the spirit of a fairy tale that is anything but ‘mere’. (There is no literalist river by the meadow here, but there is water, which, when we see or even feel it, thereby makes its point all the more clearly.) The subconscious is clearly at work, but never in laboured, didactic fashion. That, after all, is not the way of the subconscious. and we make what we will of it. That, after all, is its way.

At the heart, in more ways than one, of the performance was Nadja Mchantaf’s superlative performance as Rusalka. She captured, in gorgeous, never self-regarding, vocal tone, the longing, the dreaming, the sadness and the heartbreak. Her stage presence, again entirely at the service of the drama, was second to none. One could read into her frustration as much – or as little – more as one wished, or rather as one’s subconscious wished. Mchantaf’s ability to capture ‘girlish’ sweetness, not necessarily unalloyed, and desire, indeed desperation, for something more will linger long in my memory. Rusalka’s unknowing imitation of the Foreign Princess’s knowing sexual advances upon the Prince were perhaps saddest of all. Karolina Gumos herself brought old-style glamour to a stage-stopping performance as the Princess, seductive in voice as well as in her shameless yet never inelegant display. Timothy Richards’ honestly perplexed performance as the Prince occasionally edged towards vocal strain, but never excessively so. Jens-Erik Aasbø brought a sense of the deeply, sternly primæval to Vodník, the Water Goblin, lamenting Rusalka’s fate, refusing to grant her false hope. Nadine Weissmann, Frank Castorf’s Erda, was perhaps always going to court that comparison, especially when singing this opera in German, but I was just as interested to hear how the role differed; her malevolence and yet also her personal, hinted-at tragedy shone through with what was, I think, the blackest of humour. Kosky’s conception of both goblin and witch as mediators between two irreconcilable (dream?) worlds was in excellent hands – and voices. There were no weak links, and a true sense of old-fashioned – in the best sense – company lifted every contribution. One final mention should go to the splendid trio of Wood Nymphs, Rhinemaidens in the making – or is it the other way around?

Nánási’s conducting traced the ebb and flow of Dvořák’s score very well. Opening in perhaps more formalistic fashion – not at all inappropriately so – this reading acquired impetus, even aqueous dissolution, of its own, rather as if the composer were ‘progressing’ from something more Schumannesque to the world of Tristan. In a sense he is, and one can certainly here detect proximity in some of the later harmonies. The orchestra and chorus glistened and glowered, equal partners – at least – in a drama more compelling still than most of Dvořák’s symphonies. Lange, in that interview, actually drew comparisons with Mahler, and compared the opera to ‘eine gesungene Sinfonie’. Nánási seemed very much to follow in his footsteps, St Anthony’s preaching to the Mahlerian fishes as ever going (tragically) unheeded.

Mark Berry

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