United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022  – Dvořák, Rusalka: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Douglas Boyd (conductor). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 8.8.2022. (SRT)
Director – Jack Furness
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting designer – Malcolm Rippeth
Choreography/Movement director – Fleur Darkin
Rusalka – Elin Pritchard
Prince – Gerard Schneider
Vodník – Musa Ngqungwana
Ježibaba – Christine Rice
Foreign Princess – Sky Ingram
Lovec – Mark Nathan
Hajný – John Findon
Kutchtík – Grace Durham
Wood nymphs – Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe, Stephanie Wake-Edwards
There is only one fully staged opera in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and it has already been seen elsewhere in the UK this summer; but rather than focus on what we don’t have, let us enjoy what we do, because this production of Dvořák’s Rusalka is very strong.
The keystone of the production’s visual side is Tom Piper’s terrific design. He places the lake in the centre of the stage, a large but shallow circular hole with ankle-deep water reflecting and splashing in the bottom. The lake is covered with a huge disc that can be raised and lowered, signifying the world of the surface, and differentiating the world of the spirits from that of humans. A hole in the disc represents the only portal between them. It’s dashed clever and used to great effect, not least through the use of a team of six aerialists, young women who do acrobatics on ropes to represent the magic of the forest spirits. They are entrancing to watch and add a flash of magic to the crowd scenes of the outer acts. Meanwhile, in a macabre touch, Ježibaba’s cottage is a giant skull that glides in and out mysteriously. The domestic world of the castle takes over the set for Act II, with the crowds of courtiers and even the prince’s bed sitting atop the disc to differentiate this stuffy world from the freedom of the forest.
Director Jack Furness seems more at home in the world of the spirits than in the world of the humans. He doesn’t solve the problems of the second act wedding preparations, where there are long periods of orchestral music with no singing. He simply stages a lot of toing and froing, with an occasional dance sequence and not much enlightenment. I found my fingers drumming fairly quickly at those moments. However, he stages the magical scenes more effectively because they are very simple. Rusalka’s two big arias, for example, are done with remarkable economy of gesture, and her supplicatory duets, with both Ježibaba and the Vodník, are very moving because they are left alone to speak for themselves. The same is true for the final love-death as she quietly encircles the prince with her ultimately poisonous affections.
The big draw in the vocal cast was Natalya Romaniw’s debut as the water sprite, but she was unwell and was replaced by Elin Pritchard. (As luck would have it, the same thing happened when Clive Peacock saw this show in its initial run at Wormsley, review here.) Hers is a lighter voice with little in the way of opulence or richness, but she uses it delightfully, and by the time of her big aria at the start of the third act I had come to find her very moving. Gerard Schneider’s Prince takes a little while to hit his stride, but he uses the lower, darker reaches of his voice to marvellously heroic effect in the final duet. Musa Ngqungwana was too light of voice to make an effective Vodník: his baleful pronouncements of doom sounded far too thin and unfocused to be effective. However, Christine Rice stole the show as Ježibaba, hamming it up delightfully and loving every moment. Sky Ingram made for a forthright Princess.
In the pit, the Philharmonia made the warmest, most inviting sound of any opera orchestra I have heard this year, and Douglas Boyd, Garsington’s Artistic Director, shaped the sound with terrific energy. The small Garsington chorus sounded terrific too.
Every production of Rusalka that I have ever seen leaves me more, not less, convinced that this opera needs to have an hour shaved off its running time, and the longueurs of Acts II and III leave me longing for the curtain to fall. None of that is the fault of this team, though. If this is the only staged opera that we’re going to get in the EIF this year then I guess we can count ourselves pretty lucky.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29 August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.