Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Rusalka, Royal Opera, 27 February 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Nymphs and Rusalka (Camilla Nylund)
Images: Royal Opera/Clive Barda

Rusalka – Camilla Nylund
Foreign Princess – Petra Lang
Prince – Bryan Hymel
Ježibaba – Agnes Zwierko
Vodník – Alan Held
Huntsman – Daniel Grice
Gamekeeper – Gyula Orendt
Kitchen Boy – Ilse Eerens
Wood Nymphs – Anna Devin, Justina Gringyte, Madeleine Pierard
Mourek – Claire Talbot

Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito (directors)
Samantha Seymour (revival director)
Barbara Ehnes (set designs)
Anja Rabes (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Chris Kondek (video designs)
Altea Garrido (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Yannick Nézet-Seguin (conductor)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an interesting opera production will be met with incomprehension and lazy, philistine hostility by vast swathes of the audience in many, perhaps most, of the world’s ‘major’ houses, a truth that renders one all the more grateful for the Royal Opera showing the courage to stage this new – to London – production of Rusalka. That is not to say that any production meeting with hostility qualifies as interesting; some, of course, are simply not very good, or worse. Yet, it seems that only the most vapid, unchallenging – and yes, I realise that the word ‘challenging’ is a red rag to self-appointed ‘traditionalist’ bulls – of productions will garner approval from the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie. The boorish behaviour of those who booed this Rusalka equates more or less precisely to the sort of antics they would condemn if they occurred on the street – the work of ‘hoodlums’, the ‘lower classes’, the ‘uneducated’, ‘rioters’, ‘immigrants’, et al. – yet somehow unwillingness or inability to think, the fascistic refusal to consider an alternative point of view, the threat of mob violence, becomes perfectly acceptable when one has paid the asking price for what they consider to be their rightful ‘entertainment’. They would no more bother to understand, to explore, to question, Rusalka were it depicted in the most ’traditional’ of fashions, of course, but they explode at the mere suggestion that a work and a performance might ask something of them. For, as John Stuart Mill famously noted, ‘Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.’ Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ – ‘emotionalisation’, not abdication! – remains as foreign a country to them as it did to the Jockey Club thugs who prevented Tannhäuser from being performed in Paris; at least one might claim that the latter were having to deal with challenging ‘new music’, Zukunftsmuik, even. Here they were faced with an opera by Dvořák, first performed in 1901, in a staging that would barely raise an eyebrow in most German house or festivals. (The production, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, hails initially from the Salzburg Festival.) It would be interesting to know how many of those booing had selfishly, uncomprehendingly disrupted a recent Marriage of Figaro in the same house by erupting into laughter at the very moment Count Almaviva sought forgiveness from the Countess. (There was also, bizarrely, to be heard at the opening of the third act a shouted call from a member of the audience for a ‘free’ Quebec.)

Rusalka, Prince (Bryan Hymel), and Foreign Princess (Petra Lang)

What, then, was it that incurred the wrath of the Tunbridge Wells beau monde? I can only assume that it was for the most part Barbara Ehnes’s sets, since the stage direction (presumably a good part of it from revival director, Samantha Seymour) was more often that not quite in harmony with the urgings and suggestions of Dvořák’s score. (The hostile rarely if ever listen to the music; at best, they follow the surtitles and bridle at deviations from what they imagine the stage directions might have been.) Even modern dress is mixed with a sense of the magical, the environment of Ježibaba the witch a case in point. There is even a cat, played both in giant form by Claire Talbot, and in real form, by – a cat, ‘Girlie’. What is real, and what is not? Collision between spirit and human worlds is compellingly brought to life, the devils and demons of a heathen past, including Slavonic river spirits (rusalki) come to tempt, to question, to lay bare the delusions of moralistic, bigoted modernity. Just as modern ‘love’ and marriage’ quickly boil down to money and power, so Vodník the water goblin finds his tawdry place of temptation whilst issuing his moralistic warnings. (Did the audience see itself reflected in the mirror? Perhaps, though I doubt that it even bothered to think that far.) Our ideas of Nature having been hopelessly compromised by what we have become, we ‘naturally’ see the world of rusalki from within the comforts of our hypocritical bordello. Who is exploiting whom, and who is ‘impure’? The souls of women who have committed suicide and of stillborn children – there are various accounts of who the rusalki actually are – or those who shun them in life and in death? Wieler and Morabito do not offer agitprop; rather they allow us to ask these questions of the work, and of ourselves. But equally importantly, they permit a sense of wonder to suffuse what remains very much a fairy tale, realism coexisting with, being corrected by, something older, more mysterious, more dangerous, and perhaps ultimately liberating. Chris Kondek’s video designs, not unlike the hydroelectric dam of Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centenary’ Ring, both suggest Nature and through their necessary technological apparatus remind us of our distance from any supposed ‘Golden Age’, just as the opening scene will inevitably suggest to us Alberich, the Rhinemaidens, and the power of the erotic. (Wagner used the term liebesgelüste.)

Musical performances were equally strong, in many respects signalling a triumph for Covent Garden. First and foremost should be mentioned Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Royal Opera debut. The orchestra played for him as if for an old friend, offering a luscious, long-breathed Romanticism that made it sound a match – as, on its best days, it is – for any orchestra in the world. Magic was certainly to be heard: the sound of Dvořák’s harps again took me back to Das Rheingold – and to Bernard Haitink’s tenure at the house. Ominous fate was brought into being with similar conviction and communicative skill. Above all, Nézet-Séguin conveyed both a necessary sense of direction and a love for the score’s particular glories. If there are times when Dvořák might benefit from a little more, at least, of Janáček’s extraordinary dramatic concision, it would take a harder heart than mine to eschew the luxuriance on offer both in score and performance. Crucially, staging and performance interacted so that the contrast between worlds on stage intensified that in the pit, and vice versa.

Ježibaba (Agnes Zwierko)
and her cat, Mourek (Claire Talbot)
Camilla Nylund shone in the title role. At times, especially during the first act, one might have wondered whether her voice would prove to have the necessary heft, but it did, and Nylund proved herself an accomplished actress into the bargain. Bryan Hymel may not be the most exciting of singers; the voice is not especially variegated. However, he proved dependable, and often a great deal more, the final duet as moving as one could reasonably expect. Alan Held was everything a Vodník should be: baleful, threatening, sincere, and yet perhaps not quite. The Spirit of the Lake may well have his own agenda – and certainly did here. Agnes Zwierko played the witch Ježibaba with wit, menace, and a fine sense of hypocrisy that brought the closed environments of Janáček’s dramas to mind. The four Jette Parker Young Artists participating, nymphs Anna Devin, Madeleine Perard, and Justina Gringyte, and Huntsman Daniel Grice all acquitted themselves with glowing colours. Indeed, Grice’s solo, enveloped by miraculous Freischütz-like horns from the orchestra, movingly evoked a world of lost or never-existent woodland innocence. Last but not least, Petra Lang’s Foreign Princess emerged, like Wagner’s Ortrud, as in some respects the most truthful, as well as the most devious, character of all. Splendidly sung and acted, Lang’s was a performance truly to savour. But then, this was a performance as a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts, a triumphant return to form for Covent Garden with its first ever staging of the work.


Henry Holland said...

(There was also, bizarrely, to be heard at the opening of the third act a shouted call from a member of the audience for a ‘free’ Quebec)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is from Montréal, there are Quebecois separatists who want to secede from Canada (it'll never happen).

Steve Freeman said...

Not everyone who didn't like this production is a retrograde from Tunbridge Wells. It had some cute ideas (Rusalka walking on stilettos), but far too much "business". Why, for example, does the witch try to get it on with the hunter's nephew? Why are the wood nymphs in the background for all of Act 3, only to rush in and ask what just happened in front of them? Does it really make sense for that cat to have a go at bonking Rusalka? Does every production in the world have to feature prostitutes?

I don't mind modern productions, but I'm really tired of the regie-cliche's.

Mark Berry said...


Thank you for your comment. My point was that, whatever one might think about the production, assuming that one thought at all, booing was an unacceptable, thuggish response. People are entirely free to make up their own minds, but that sometimes entails some effort: shouting as loud as one does not entail willingness to enter into discussion, but rather an attempt to drown out dissenting voices. And I wonder how many of those braying cared, or even realised, that they were hurling their abuse not at the original directors, but at a team headed by a revival director.

Steve Freeman said...

I wasn't there for the first night, so I don't know how strong the booing was. Apparently, pretty tame compared to a bad night at La Scala (or the Glasgow Empire).

It seems unreasonable for directors to present "challenging", in-your-face interpretations and then get upset when people respond. Similarly, it's hard to feel that revival directors should get an easy ride since they chose to do the show.

Meanwhile, I'm remembering The Minotaur, which really was terrifying and mythic with no excess busyness or pointless transposition.

Mark Berry said...

Well, I hardly think La Scala presents a model for audience behaviour, or indeed for artistic adventurousness. To be fair to the directors, it was not they, but I - and a good few others in the audience - who were upset/irritated/angered by the booing and perhaps more so by the general level of audience and critical response. As a puerile, piece of anti-intellectualism, it would be hard to better this 'review' from the 'Daily Telegraph': http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/9111257/Rusalka-Royal-Opera-House-review.html. 'I wish I had more space...' Well, Mr Christiansen, you would have done, had you not expended it on the philistine xenophobia of your second paragraph. I really do not think that such a production would so much as raise an eyebrow in Germany, though I dread to think how it would go down at the Met...

Moreover, given an evening when people felt free to cough, sneeze, chatter, have their telephones go off, drop things, etc., etc., it wasn’t entirely clear to me that those performing shouldn’t have booed us, the audience, or at least those amongst us responsible. Just in case I have been misunderstood, I have no problem whatsoever with a hostile response to a production I in many respects admired, so long as that hostility is based upon some attempt to consider what was on offer rather than kneejerk rejectionism. The woman seated next to me pointedly declined to applaud when the production team arrived on stage, and she was perfectly entitled to do so. I myself have done that on a number of occasions. But the fascistic aggression of booing would be more at home at a party rally - or perhaps to a television game show, not that the two are so very different - than in a house devoted to serious artistic endeavour.

As for 'The Minotaur', I'm afraid I thought the production might have been a little more interesting. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but by comparison with 'Gawain', I found the staging a little on the straightforward side. (I also think 'Gawain' is the greater opera.)

musicasola said...

I would be very interested to know what are the "regie-cliche's" Mr Freeman sees in this production. That's the typical conservative response to all modern staging: cliches, already done, etc. As if this was the point. I didn't hear Wieler and Morabito say they wanted to make something absolutely new that nobody ever saw. They work from the score and from the libretto and try to make the best of them - and I think they brilliantly succeed.
I'm French and I know the state of the British stage only very vaguely, but I must say: when I'm in London, I have the impression there is no theatre life beyond musicals and movie stars. That may help to understand why the response to this staging masterwork was so miserable.

Anonymous said...

This is the only sensible review of the production I've read. Andrew Clements in the Guardian is terrible - no engagement with the ideas at all, and a craven falling in with the most simplistic online comments below the line. I actually agree with Steve Freeman about the cat climbing on Rusalka - I didn't get it; it felt like a misfiring joke when I was expecting something much more frightening to happen - and was confused by several other bits, but that amounted to only a few weak minutes in a stimulating and intelligent production. I was very moved by the ending.

Anonymous said...

This is an aside to 'Rusalka' but someone mentioned how bad Andrew Clements' review was - I've just read him on Kaufmann and the CBSO,and I've never read so poorly written a piece. Is he always this bad, and if so how is it that he is paid to write?