We hear a lot these days from opera companies fumbling around for fresh ways to lure new audiences, so here's an idea they might consider: mount a first-rate modern production, fill it with talented young artists and take it out on tour at affordable prices. If it works for Glyndebourne – which it does, triumphantly – it ought to work for the aspiring kings of cool in, say, St Martin's Lane.
‘Modern' need not mean ‘off-the-wall', and there's certainly nothing outlandish about Melly Still's magical staging of Dvorak's fairy-tale opera Rusalka, first seen in 2009 and here revived for the second time by the director herself. The story is simple – it's The Little Mermaid, more or less, but refracted through de la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine – and Still works amid designs by Rae Smith that are imaginative yet economical to carve a vivid piece of theatre from its arc. Her human world is a surreal-splashed version of today, her mermaids and water sprites a refreshing fusion of tradition and originality.
Not having warmed to Natasha Jouhl's Donna Anna at Garsington a few months ago I was unprepared for such a complete assumption of Dvorak's title role; but the young British-born soprano was sensational. From first note to last Jouhl had the measure of Rusalka's tessitura, which soars high yet dips deep into mezzo territory, and at the same time she brought an extraordinary vulnerability to bear on her characterisation. She was joined in the mythic stakes by Evgeniya Sotnikova, Michaela Kapustová and Alessandra Volpe as three feisty wood-nymphs with a taste for human flesh (their bloodiest moment one that Still revisited with rather less impact in her Cunning Little Vixen during this summer's Glyndebourne Festival) and by Mischa Schelomianski as Rusalka's father, Vodnik. The Russian bass displayed both musical conviction and the technical skill of a good actor in transcending a significant error on the part of the director when she overeggs the character's early incarnation as a priapic, fun-loving sex pest and thereby drags down his subsequent gravitas and heartbreak.
Most of Still's insights, though, are shrewd and secure. For instance, by accentuating the youthfulness of the Prince (Peter Berger – very fine apart from some pinched high notes) she makes sense of his hot-and-cold attitude to Rusalka by implying that he has not yet learnt to distinguish between lust and love. Infatuated in Act One, aroused but thwarted in Act Two, he only comes to understand his true feelings for Rusalka in the final act once he has seen past the flattering attentions of the a sophisticated Foreign Princess (a role superbly taken by Tatiana Pavlovskaya, apparently channelling Grace Kelly).
Robert Poulton's well-rounded Gamekeeper is partnered by the vivacious Kitchen Girl of Eliana Pretorian, who is also a graceful dancer. Indeed, Rick Nodine's choreography (tightly revived by Christian From) is a delight throughout, particularly his inspired evocation of a forest doe. One might wish for a greater sense of animation from Anne Mason's brightly-sung witch Ježibaba and for fewer comings-and-goings from bustling supernumeraries during the court scenes, but reservations pale into insignificance beside the many joys and felicities.
This year's Glyndebourne On Tour Orchestra proves to be a cracking ensemble, and soon-to-depart Czech Music Director Jakub Hrùša guides the players through an account of his fellow-countryman's glorious score that's packed with energy, colour and attention to detail. Glyndebourne on Tour's Rusalka is one of the classiest operas of the year, and one that will hit the spot for opera-virgins and -philes alike.