One hundred and eleven years after its premiere, Dvoøák’s most durable opera, Rusalka, has finally made it to the stage of The Royal Opera House. Fortunately it was worth the wait as this Salzburg version by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito is everything a contemporary opera production should be, as not only is it bursting with theatrical invention but what happens on stage is so inexorably linked to the music that the fusion of acting, playing, design and singing becomes a marriage made in heaven.
This style of staging is a big departure for The Royal Opera, and it proves – after the wretched revival of Don Giovanni that the company is not afraid to take risks so ‘bravo’ to them for importing such a fresh and invigorating view of the work. Although the production team was unjustly met with a volley of boos from those in the audience who aren’t prepare to engage with anything that dares to go beyond the literal, I loved every minute of it. Not only have this brilliantly talented directorial-duo come up with a persuasive visual metaphor for Dvoøák’s tale of the water sprite who wishes to become human, but they proceed to deliver their take on the opera with an unfaltering eye for detail and in the process draw searing performances from every member of the cast.
Set within designer Barbara Ehnes’ seedy down at heal Eastern European brothel, the opera becomes a modern parable for the sexploitation of women and packs an emotional punch that a more picture-book fairytale setting would fail to do. The supernatural elements are not shirked, especially in Ježibaba’s transformation of the eponymous heroine from water sprite to woman, aided and abetted by a larger than life cat, and the visual metaphor of shoes – having taken on mortal form, Rusalka teeters around on a vertiginous pair of stilettos whilst in the last act Ježibaba busies herself polishing pair upon pair of them, lends weight to the overall concept. For me it was a stunning evening of theatre, which I can’t wait to see again.
Musically this is the finest night at Covent Garden for a very long time. Chief architect of this success is conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making a sensational house debut. Those of us who have admired his concerts with the LPO, know that he has talent in spades, and here he secures playing that is at turns impassioned and wonderfully nuanced from a gloriously alert orchestra. He provides exemplary support for the singers and one only hopes that he’s been booked to return on a regular basis.
Amongst the well-balanced cast, Camilla Nylund (house debut) throws herself into the title role with abandon, producing ravishing singing throughout. The role of Rusalka is a big sing, but she never falters once, and considering that she is on stage for virtually the entire evening, that’s no mean feat. As the Prince Brian Hymel may be a bit rough round the edges here and there, but rises to his death scene admirably, and sounds as though he has plenty of power in reserve. Alan Held is a powerful presence as the water spirit Vodník whilst Agnes Zwierko is formidable as the witch Ježibaba. This superb cast sets the seal on a thought-provoking evening of music-theatre that simply demands to be seen.