Rusalka promises a powerful show brimming with life and the tragedy of wasted sacrifice. Like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, water nymph Rusalka is offered the chance to experience love but at the cost of her voice and immortality and, if her love is not reciprocated, risks exile and the damnation of her beloved.
Even though it pre-dates the medium Dvorak’s music is almost cinematic. It carries the story along adding drama and power. It is also deeply lyrical especially "The Song to the Moon." Evocatively performed by Giselle Allen as our heroine, it is a joy soaked in strings and harp.
Unfortunately director Olivia Fuchs ignores the potential drama and, in aiming for subtlety and atmosphere, gives us a slow and rather dull production. The set, by Niki Turner, represents Rusalka’s home as an icy kingdom. The chunks of ice and sterile blue lighting by Bruno Poet convey the sense of the mundane life of a loveless immortal. But it is so successful that it raises doubts as to the extent of Rusalka’s sacrifice. Her sisters appear only briefly in the background and hardly seem the closest of families so one has to wonder just how much this water nymph has given up.
The same set, with a minor but striking variation, is used for the Prince’s court depressingly suggesting that all of Rusalka’s efforts were pointless from the start.
Fuchs makes a number of questionable decisions. In order to demonstrate Rusalka’s transformation to a mortal Allen spends the early scenes with her legs bound together limiting the extent to which she can perform. Worse is the under-use of Opera North’s Chorus who are barely featured. In the second act they are used to give a visual representation of the hell in which Rusalka finds herself. Dressed in shades of crimson they harass the luckless heroine driving her from the court. It is a powerful scene but one can’t help but wish that they had sang more in what is, after all, an opera.
Without the vocal contribution of the chorus the production never reaches its potential strengthen and, as there are rarely more than six of the cast on stage at the same time, has a sparse feel.
The second act is the most successful of the three. The addition of a nemesis for Rusalka, in the form of Susannah Glanville’s powerfully-voiced Foreign Princess, brings a welcome touch of drama to a production that is much too slow and lacks texture.
Opera North’s Rusalka is a disappointment. In spite of fine vocal performances it confirms the prejudices of people who regard opera as a ponderous art form rather than the uplifting entertainment that it can be.