Superb Conducting Caps an Appealing New Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Xl_rusalka-asmik-grigorian-royal-opera-house-c-camilla-greenwell_01487 © Camilla Greenwell

Based on the fairytales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka of 1901, with a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, tells the story of the eponymous water sprite. She tells her father Vodník, the water goblin who rules the lake where she lives, that she has fallen in love with a Prince who she has seen hunting. Wishing to become human so that she can embrace him, she seeks the assistance of the witch Ježibaba who explains that she would lose the power of speech as well as her immortality. Rusalka, accepting this and the fact that if she does not find love the Prince will die and she will be eternally damned, drinks the potion that Ježibaba concocts to transform her. 

The Prince finds the mute Rusalka and, although he plans to marry her, he lavishes attention on one of the wedding guests, a jealous and demanding Foreign Princess. When she curses the couple, the Prince rejects Rusalka who returns to the lake. The Foreign Princess, even though she has successfully won the Prince’s affections, is disgusted by his fickleness and betrayal and tells him to follow his rejected bride to hell.

Ježibaba tells the dejected Rusalka that she can still save herself if she kills the Prince with a knife that she gives her, but Rusalka is horrified at the thought and throws it into the lake. She consequently becomes a will-o’-the-wisp, a spirit of death who lives in the depths of the lake and only emerges to lure humans to their fates. The Prince ends up coming to the lake, and when Rusalka appears she is now able to speak to him. He asks her to kiss him, even though he knows the consequence, and dies when she does so. Vodník observes that all sacrifices are futile, while, in her final song, Rusalka tells the Prince that for his inconstancy and her cursed fate ‘God have mercy on you’.

Rusalka, Royal Opera House 2023 (c) Camilla Greenwell

Rusalka is not the easiest opera to stage because presenting the lake setting literally can end up creating something that feels either chintzy or bland. At the same time, when the opera is very much about the clash between nature and society, presenting it conceptually risks projecting artifice onto nature before we have even started, thus unbalancing the piece. However, the Royal Opera’s new production, directed by Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami, navigates these difficulties very well. It clearly reveals how society corrupts nature, and sets up the three acts to reveal its pernicious influence. As a result, every act has a distinctly different feel to it and, if it is possible to suggest ways in which each individually might have been made more effective still, the overall impression they create is highly persuasive. 

During the Prelude we are presented with the beautiful image of Rusalka and the Prince ‘swimming’ in mid-air, while designer Chloe Lamford ensures that Act I, which takes place by the water, looks equally gorgeous. A circular lake is surrounded by hanging reeds while the three Wood Spirits become six as the excellent singers Vuvu Mpofu, Gabrielė Kupšytė and Anne Marie Stanley are joined by dancers. This introduces a new dynamic, and, unlike the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold where there have to be three, there is no reason why there should not be a larger group of them. If the act might be accused of feeling just a little too straight forward, it creates a pure vision of nature from which its corruption can then be measured.

Act II, which takes place in the garden of the Prince’s castle, keeps the lake in the same place, but places a ceilinged platform in front of it on which most of the action takes place. This contrasts nature and society very clearly with a bench with a dead tree protruding from one end suggesting that the Prince believes he is cultivating nature when really he is destroying it. The ballet at the wedding is also very cleverly constructed to show how the behaviour of the guests is in reality as crass as it is supposedly sophisticated. A few marble spheres are initially added to the lake, but by the end of the scene the people have totally polluted it with golden seahorse and swan rubber rings and their drunken dalliances. 

By the time we are back at the lake in Act III, the water is stagnant and red, and all the reeds have disappeared, revealing just how pervasive the Prince’s actions have been. Perhaps the one difficulty with this scene is that, while it completes the transformation of the place in line with the production’s thesis, the deliberately jarring colours and bare space create a less than appealing setting for Rusalka and the Prince’s final encounter. An inconducive setting can have a significant effect on just how emotional the ending feels, although it is still moving by virtue of the strength of the performances and the orchestra.

Asmik Grigorian, Rusalka, Royal Opera House 2023 (c) Camilla Greenwell

In fact, the evening’s musical credentials are extremely strong, with Semyon Bychkov’s conducting proving particularly wondrous. The pace is perfect, the detail quite staggering, and the two actually go together. This is not a performance designed to push anything to extremes in order to heighten the effect. Rather it works by applying the most appropriate overarching framework to the piece, and then bringing out every facet of the score so that sensitivity pervades all aspects of the output and lines are allowed to breathe naturally. 

Asmik Grigorian is a very fine Rusalka, with the combination of security and nuance in her soprano making for a highly compelling performance. She also undergoes the associated changes in outlook and temperament well as she transforms from water sprite to human to will-o’-the-wisp. David Butt Philip reveals a brilliantly expansive tenor as the Prince, while Aleksei Isaev, who shares the role of Vodník over the run with Rafal Siwek, displays a deep and persuasive baritone that from Act II onwards is hard to picture being more appropriate for the part. There is excellent support from Ross Ramgobin as the Gamekeeper, Hongni Wu as the Kitchen Boy and Josef Jeongmeen Ahn as the Hunter, while two other performances stand out in particular. Sarah Connolly is a multi-faceted Ježibaba who neither makes the witch a stereotypical old hag or so comical that she ceases to feel formidable, though there is certainly wit in her performance. Finally, Emma Bell is a superb Foreign Princess whose very voice captures the ruthlessness that resides in this most expectant and demanding of characters.

By Sam Smith

Rusalka | 21 February - 7 March 2023 | Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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