Despite being into opera for some years now, and Dvořák for much longer, to my knowledge I’ve never heard a note of Rusalka before. Quite how this is the case I’m not sure, but I thought that since I wasn’t on formal reviewing duties, it would be a good opportunity to go to an opera completely cold – no listening to recordings beforehand for comparison, no reading of other people’s reviews of this or past productions, no composition history; I didn’t even read a synopsis. I will be doing all of these things, but not until I’ve finished writing. That would be cheating.
Within minutes, if not seconds, of the overture starting, it was clear that this would be a piece of music I would love. Not exactly surprising: I love the vast majority of the Dvořák that I’ve heard and/or played, the only exceptions that I can think of being his Slavonic Dances (I’m lukewarm about orchestral folk dances in general) and the Serenade for Winds (my 1st-year roommate used the piece to teach herself conducting, namely by putting it on the stereo over and over again while waving her arms and smirking at herself in the mirror). The ROH orchestra promised to be on stunning form under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whom I remember liking very much at the 2009 Proms.
And on stage? A pleasant-looking wood-panelled sauna (although without any steam). The original fairy tale may have featured water- and wood-nymphs in a river, but I can happily go with bath-house-nymphs instead. Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte had the opening number, singing prettily and comporting themselves indecently (i.e., appropriately) as the
RheinVltavamaidens to tease Alan Held’s AlberichVodnik. Throughout the evening, it was Held’s singing that I enjoyed the most, having rich tone matched with delicate musical sensitivity, and by some way the most convincing emotional expression – and all this despite spending most of his time lolling around on the floor, sporting a pair of flippers (and particularly skanky hair). Rusalka herself (Camilla Nylund) was similarly afflicted with ridiculousness, being required to flop around the stage with her legs tied together in a blue bag, for all the world like a 5-year old child going “Look at MEEEEEEEE – I’m the Little MERMAAAAAAIIIID!” while executing pretend-swimming motions. Her solo numbers were pleasant on the ear, although the eye was distracted by the three nymphs variously attempting to jam themselves under the coffee table, wedge themselves head-first between the sofa cushions, and generally twat around in the background. There was some video projection going on, but apart from having a huge white jellyfish representing the moon – which I liked – the effects really were light years behind what the ENO would have done with it.
So, Rusalka leaves her family to persuade Ježibaba the witch (whom I believe also runs the supernatural bath-house in Spirited Away?) to turn her human, so she can pursue some bloke she’s clapped eyes on and fancies (or, in a more Freudian vein, the bloke who’s recently been diving naked into her river and penetrating her watery depths). While proactive, this seems less of a good idea when it appears that to become human she must first be struck mute, and then threatened with eternal damnation if catching him doesn’t all go to plan. [Spoiler: it doesn’t all go to plan.] Apparently during the transformation scene, Ježibaba’s pantomime cat assaults Rusalka, but like many of us with seats on the right hand side of the amphi I couldn’t see it. While I don’t feel I’ve missed out on this occasion – tending, as I do, to fail to see the comedic side of rape – I do think it is a particularly shitty thing for directors to place key scenes (first kisses, death scenes, Big Arias, supernatural transformations, etc.) where they know a fair proportion of the audience won’t be able to see them. Unlike newspaper journalists would have you believe, opera does not have to be an expensive hobby, and the ROH is very good for having a number of seats in the £10-£20 range. From those, I expect to have part of the stage cut off in return for the budget price, but to choose to stage scenes so that many people in the amphi have no idea what everyone else is laughing at (or otherwise responding to) is a bit of a Fuck You.
Anyway, the Prince (Bryan Hymel) is out hunting in the forest, because tenors do love their hunting. Rusalka teeters in, having decided on trackie bottoms to encase her brand new legs, and stilettos for her brand new feet, simpering blondely in a rather good imitation of Katherine Jenkins – although, of course, La Jenkins wouldn’t be seen dead in anything so figure-unhugging. This made me pause for thought: Might Rusalka be the perfect role for Jenkins’ long-hinted opera debut? One not particularly technically challenging aria, and then hanging around looking pretty without making a sound for the rest of the show? (Of course, at that point I didn’t know that Rusalka gets her voice back later on.) Anyway, she seems to be exactly what the Prince likes, and he sweeps her off to his house and plans to marry her, before being distracted from this purpose by imperious luxury-cast Wagnerian Princess Petra Lang. Maybe, after all, he likes a woman he can have a conversation with, and who doesn’t randomly start rolling around on the floor at parties?
Now, a lot of the singing during all this was probably very fine indeed, but there’s a problem. Or rather, not a problem for me, but a problem some readers may have with my reporting. To them, the human voice is the pinnacle of all music, and is always the Most Important Thing happening musically at any given time, with everything else just a backing track. I appreciate music made by (some) human voices very much indeed, but I don’t appreciate it to a greater degree than I do music made by instruments. And Dvořák uses orchestral instruments so very beautifully, both soloistically and blended from a complex palette of colours and textures that you could almost sink your teeth into. Sure, the vocal lines were great, but so were, say, the interlocking clarinet and bassoon lines going on at the same time; a character may have been emoting away on stage, but even more so was the cello section in the pit; the individual singers were all deserving of their applause, but this is a strange world where the brilliant flute and cor anglais soloists don’t get their own clap. (I suppose this is partly what blogging is for. In case you’re reading, ROH woodwind section: you were superb and inspirational. Although I won’t say I didn’t miss Philip Rowson’s piccolo.) Essentially, a lot of the time, without intending to criticise the singers, there was more interesting stuff going on underneath.
Back to the story. Rusalka gives up and goes home in disgrace, gets her voice back, but unexpectedly it is now the voice of Celine Byrne (thanks to Nylund suffering an allergic reaction – presumably not to the cat). The bath-house of the spirits seems to have gone down-market, with the Vltavamaidens now prostitutes (well, either that or they were off to a Camden nightclub after the show, and had got changed early). Ježibaba offers Rusalka a get-out from her curse if she kills Prince to death with a big stabby knife, but she stabs herself instead. Vodnik is very sad. The Vltavamaidens aren’t, and prance around near the corpse, anointing themselves liberally with a can of Impulse. Ježibaba sexually harasses Kitchen Boy/Girl Ilse Eerens (I also have a soft spot for crop-haired androgynous redheads – blame Annie Lennox). Meanwhile, everyone in the audience wonders how you train a cat (a real live one this time) to come and go when you want it to. I start to ponder if any of these people (Mr Held aside) could actually engage me emotionally, perhaps in a different production. And then, to my surprise, they do. Byrne and Hymel pull it out of the hat and completely grab me with their final scene. The fact that they are presented as blood-dribbling semi-corpses notwithstanding, they grip me completely and finally make me care about their doomed love. Beautiful. Then she tips his death-rattling ass down the prompt hatch.