Rusalka, ENO at the Coliseum

David Pountney s spell-binding production of Dvorak s Rusalka has returned to the Coliseum to open the 1998/9 Season - and what a brilliant way to launch Nicholas Payne s tenure as General Director! Whilst some people still think there is a need to debate the very existence of opera in this country, ENO proves that is a viable and necessary part of life.

Pountney s production is now 15 years old and is wearing well. This is the third time I have seen his wonderfully evocative (and when it was new, controversial) staging, and it works its spell better than before. Pountney uproots Dvorak s tale of the water nymph (Rusalka) - who falls in love with a human, renounces speech and then causes his release from life by fatally kissing him - and places it in a Victorian nursery. The result is very Freudian, highly charged and breathtakingly beautiful. Rusalka thus becomes an adolescent girl, exploring sexuality for the first time, moving from childhood to womanhood. Pountney s concept is so audacious it works.

The designs are by Stefanos Lazaradis, and whilst they are beginning to show their age, he creates some of the most breathtakingly beautiful stages pictures that you are ever likely to see in the lyric theatre.

In Susan Patterson, ENO have found a remarkable protagonist. Most of the role is written for a lyrical soprano, who then has to rise to the dramatic challenges of the final duet, of heroic proportions and needing a glint of metal in the voice. All the previous incumbents of this role have had lyricism in abundance, but were sorely taxed by the last Act. Not so Paterson, whose singing takes on a thrilling edge when needed, easily riding the orchestral tumult, yet produces beautifully sustained lyrical tone throughout. She looks the part too, and as an actress, her transformation from child to woman is heart-wrenchingly paraded before our eyes; perfect.

The rest of the cast is good, especially Catherine Savory as Zezibaba, John Connell as the Water Sprite and Janice Cairns as an over the top Foreign Princess. Robert Brubaker looks the part as the Prince, and sings well throughout, but he is defeated by the cruelly exposed vocal writing towards the end of the opera.

Richard Hickox doesn t get the orchestra to ‘breathe with the singers which led to the pit and stage parting company more than once on Saturday s opening night.

Notwithstanding, this is an excellent revival of a classic production, and well worth a visit.

Keith McDonnell