Musical magic in Nicola Raab’s dark, grim Rusalka for Opéra national du Rhin

FranceFrance Dvořák, Rusalka: Soloists, Chœurs de l’Opéra national du Rhin, Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg / Antony Hermus (conductor), Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg, 19.10.2019. (RP)

Pumeza Matshikiza (Rusalka) and Bryan Register (Prince)
© Klara Beck

Director – Nicola Raab
Sets – Julia Müer
Lighting – Bernd Purkrabek
Costumes – Raphaela Rose
Video – Martin Andersson
Chorus master – Alessandro Zupardo

Rusalka – Pumeza Matshikiza
Prince – Bryan Register
Water Goblin – Attila Jun
Ježibaba – Patricia Bardon
Foreign Princess – Rebecca Von Lipinski
First Wood Sprite – Agnieszka Slawinska
Second Wood Sprite – Julie Goussot
Third Wood Sprite – Eugénie Joneau
Turnspit – Claire Péron
Gamekeeper/Hunter – Jacob Scharfman
Rusalka (child) – Emma Albenesius

Recently named Opera House of the Year 2019 by Opernwelt, Opéra national du Rhin opened the new season with Dvořák’s Rusalka in a challenging, provocative staging by Nicola Raab. Hers is a grim concept of this tragic fairy tale, elements of which at times nearly overpowered the stage action but never the music. Conductor Antony Hermus led an exciting performance with an exceptional cast and fine contributions by the Chœurs de l’Opéra national du Rhin and Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg; the singers and orchestra never failed to deliver Rusalka’s mystery and magic.

Raab packed a lot into her staging, drawing parallels between the plight of a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince and a filmed account of a violent, obsessive relationship. Grainy black-and-white video of this tempestuous affair foreshadowed events in the opera’s plot. Its harsh imagery was often at odds with the libretto, especially the brutal sex scenes. (The Prince’s subsequent attempted rape of Rusalka seemed contrived, as if inserted only to fulfill an on-screen prophesy.) Later, people winced and lowered their eyes as the man on the video slit his wrist, but his lover’s backward death spiral into the lake was engrossing to watch. The demises of Rusalka and the Prince were far more mundane.

There were many compelling visual components to Raab’s concept, especially the strong images and objects that she employed to provide continuity to the staging in much the same way Dvořák used leitmotifs throughout the score. The scenes in the first act where large swaths of white crocheted cloth flowed across the stage were simple and beautiful. A stunning effect came with a quiver of large white arrows landing on stage in perfect sync with the music, announcing that the Prince and his men were at the hunt. Later, Rusalka would appear with an arrow run through her and a splotch of blood on her white dress. Similar stains would be seen in the film. Raab never failed to connect the dots.

Clear plastic was used to great effect in some of the production’s most thought-provoking scenes. In one of its few light-hearted moments, the Turnspit whacked off the heads of the fish that the Gamekeeper caught and packed them in carefully labeled plastic bags. As plastic wrap, it took on more sinister connotations when the Foreign Princess draped a sheet over the bewildered Rusalka’s head, as if to smother her in a wedding veil. The curtain rose on the final act to reveal Rusalka lying on stage encased in plastic, missing only a tag to determine her expiration date.

Raab’s attention to detail also revealed itself in the characterizations from the singers. Pumeza Matshikiza’s Rusalka was an exotic, almost feral creature, shattering stereotypes of the fluttery fairy usually associated with the role. This physical otherworldliness was also found in her dark, scintillating voice, which demands a second hearing to get its full measure. When she was to be released to pursue love in the mortal world, she sang a radiant ‘Song to the Moon’ in a mermaid’s tail while Ježibaba painted her face gold (as she first did her own).

Rusalka’s nemesis, the Foreign Princess in the person of Rebecca Von Lipinski, was Matshikiza’s opposite in almost every way. Attired in an elegant beige pants ensemble with close cropped blond hair, the princess was ice-cold, toying mercilessly with both Rusalka’s and the Prince’s minds. In contrast to Matshikiza’s more tightly coiled voice, Von Lipinski’s soprano was a bit wilder and freer, which the music that Dvořák wrote for this monstrous woman demands.

From the first notes that Bryan Register sang, he revealed himself to be a young Heldentenor possessed of an exceptionally fresh, beautiful voice. Soft passages were sung with ease, while the louder, more impassioned ones were marked by gleaming tone and exciting high notes. In the final scene, his sound seemed to be embraced by a cushion of luminous orchestral sound, a moment of pure bliss that was felt as much as heard. More self-indulgent and befuddled than malicious, rape was not in this prince’s character.

Raab envisioned Ježibaba and the Water Goblin as a Greek Chorus, thus heightening the dramatic impact of Patricia Bardon as Ježibaba and Attila Jun as the Water Goblin. Bardon, in a severe black Victorian dress with blond hair piled high on her head, bristled with haughty, righteous indignation. Jun’s Water Goblin was the soul of the performance. The lyricism of his singing in Act II was only rivaled by that of Bryan Register at his most tender and ardent. No other singer generated the emotion that Jun did when expressing fatherly love and compassion for the doomed Rusalka.

To the extent that there was any comic relief, it was provided by the rich-voiced baritone Jacob Scharfman as the Gamekeeper and the winning mezzo-soprano Claire Péron as the Turnspit. Equally high-spirited were the three full-voiced Wood Sprites, Agnieszka Slawinska, Julie Goussot and Eugénie Joneau. All except Slawinska are members of Opera Studio de l’OnR and promise to bring much pleasure in the upcoming months.

If the children, or even some adults, in the audience came for a fanciful fairy tale, they left with an immersion into film noir. The many teenagers present seemed to take it all in stride. I, however, wished that everyone might have been permitted to experience more of the fantasy of this magical opera. Raab’s production overflowed with concepts and connections, but in keeping with the less is more maxim, without the video it would have been far more magical and much truer to the spirit of Dvořák.

Rick Perdian

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