Dvořák: Rusalka

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Glyndebourne, 24 July 2009 4 stars

Rusalka Over the past century Rusalka has slowly emerged not only as the greatest of Dvořák's ten operas, but also as one of the finest works in the Romantic operatic oeuvre. Yet, this surfacing continues to be a lingering and onerous process. Many still try to attach comparative labels to this 'Lyric Fairy Tale' – they say that it contains dollops of Wagner, splashes of Verdi, even a soupcon of the Impressionists – yet such remarks tend to either implicitly denigrate a piece of music or provide a kind of warped aural indication to new listeners. Enough! Surely it is time for Rusalka to be acknowledged as undoubtedly, unashamedly, uniquely Dvořák in its melodies, harmonies and – perhaps above all – its resourceful orchestration. Glyndebourne Festival Opera's brand-new production, its first Rusalka in seventy-five years of existence, adds weight to the notion that this music drama should be – and ultimately is – embraced on its own merits.

Director Melly Still, making her operatic debut, maintains a straightforward, traditional approach to the mythical narrative, though not without creative insight. Particularly effective are the modern-day pre-wedding celebrations in Act II – manifested in the first instance by the appearance of guests and bouncers wearing sunglasses – which feel distinctly uneasy after the other-worldly forest lake at the beginning of the opera, such was the sense of reality it had already established. As a result, we empathise fully with Rusalka's anxiousness in a sphere which, though theoretically familiar to us, is entirely foreign to her. Additionally, our return to the watery realms in the finale becomes something of a homecoming for audience and heroine alike, stirring a heightened sense of compassion for the plight of Rusalka. The set design during the central episode – simple and static – is remarkably flexible, seamlessly transitioning from kitchen to entrance hall to bedroom. The staging in the outer acts – dark and deeply atmospheric – is enhanced by the dancers that represent the water, as well as the lavish water sprites floating down from the rafters resplendent in white with long, magnificent tails. It is in this fantastically evocative manner that we are introduced to Rusalka during the Prelude to Act I, sensuously caressing the Prince as he bathes, unaware of her presence.

RusalkaThere were times when greater imaginative ambition would have brought about even more compelling results. The Water Goblin's first appearance in Act II observing the Prince's party from his swampy depths – 'swimming' behind a screen at the back of the stage, revealed through clever use of lighting – was brilliantly engineered, and perhaps could have been exploited further. (Delaying his eventual entrance to whisk Rusalka away would have made the event far more terrifying.) Ježibaba's jocular concocting of the magic potion, though thoroughly engaging, seemed a trifle trivial following the horrific extraction of various creatures from the helpless wood nymphs caught in the fray. Furthermore, the witch's underlings – often seen in the background half-heartedly mirroring their mistress's movements – were visually incoherent, proving something of a mild distraction. Decisive, well-choreographed imitations of Ježibaba's gestures or, alternatively, total stillness, would have better served the drama.

This production is extremely well-cast, beginning with the two principals. Soprano Ana María Martínez excels in the title role, her account of Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém ('Song to the Moon') plumbing the emotional depths with astounding poignancy given its occurrence so early in the opera. She is equally impressive when muted by the witch's spell, expressing in silence her emotional tumult of joy, frustration, naivety, confusion and fury with commanding assurance. On the other side of this fateful romance, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, as the Prince, resembles the incarnation of a male lead from a Walt Disney cartoon (i.e. he unquestionably looks the part). He also has the voice and presence to match. The ode to Rusalka when he first lays eyes upon her in Act I (Vidino diviná – 'Divine Vision') was exquisitely phrased, showing an acute awareness of musical line. His towering tone continued throughout Acts II and III, only lacking in lustre on a few of his uppermost notes during the closing duet. Nevertheless, both lovers sang their ominous farewell with extraordinary affection, passion and yearning, bringing the work to a decidedly moving conclusion.

RusalkaThe Czech language is well-suited to opera, its declamatory and rhythmic nature giving the impression of the spoken word even when in the midst of a soaring melodic stanza. One would expect this to be advantageous for the likes of Larissa Diadkova, Mischa Schelomianski and Tatiana Pavlovskaya, all of Russian origin and thus accustomed to the twists and turns of Eastern European phonetics. Diadkova is a delight (perhaps too much so?) as the witch Ježibaba, lapping up the influence she exudes over Rusalka with a wholesomely fruity mezzo-soprano timbre. The pathetic figure of the Water Goblin is vividly sung by Schelomianski, though his costume is too reminiscent of Falstaff to be taken seriously. Weak and wavering loaf though he may be, his buffoonery is of tragic, not comic, consequence. Pavlovskaya's Foreign Princess is sufficiently devious, casting scoffed glances of disapproval at Rusalka's silent subsistence. Her fearsome damnation that brings down the curtain on Act II is utterly mesmerising. No one, however, appears to relish the opportunity to sing a Czech libretto more that Gamekeeper Alasdair Elliott, whose lines are entertainingly delivered with rhetorical verve and triumphant volleys of spittle with every glottal stop.

Jiři Bĕlohlávek, directing the resident London Philharmonic Orchestra, received as rousing an ovation as any of the soloists, and deservedly so. He achieves an incomparable balance between elucidating Dvořák's leitmotifs in their plethoric permutations and maintaining an unswerving melodic and harmonic course. The Glyndebourne Chorus also play their part to the full, resplendent in their acting and singing. In particular, the water sprites' chorale rejecting Rusalka for her betrayal of their kind was delivered with a steely coldness which was hauntingly beautiful.

Combined with the garden-festival aura that is so distinctively Glyndebourne and the gemütlichkeit of the arena itself, this rendition of Rusalka makes for magical afternoon-cum-evening at the opera. Warmly recommended.

By William Norris

Photo Credits: Bill Cooper

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