I’m a big fan of Robert Carsen. His Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the highlights of last year’s COC season and his Iphigénie en Tauride promises to be one of the events of the upcoming season. So, as you can imagine, I had high expectations for the DVD of his 2002 Paris production of Dvořák’s Rusalka with Renée Fleming in the title role. I wasn’t disappointed. The production is pure magic. It’s almost a mathematician’s production. In Act 1 he gives us symmetry in the horizontal plane. There’s a bedroom reflected horizontally floating above the water sprites’ abode which resolves itself into the bedroom that is the setting for Rusalka’s initial encounter with the prince. In Act 2 we get the same bedroom but in a left right symmetry and the movements of the characters are also mirrored with non singing actors mirroring the singers. The symmetry continues with Rusalka balanced against the foreign princess. It’s very cool. I’m guessing that Carsen is suggesting the distance between the world of the sprites and the human world diminishing then opening up again. In Act 3 we get geometrical chaos as Ježibaba’s hut is presented at crazy angles poised above the stage and all sorts of dissolution goes on before we again get the symmetrical bedroom in which the final tragedy plays out. The general concept is supported by a superb lighting plot (Carsen and Peter van Praet) that brilliantly brings out the moods of the different scenes. And there’s no clutter. Scene follows scene pretty much seamlessly. It’s terrific stagecraft.
Musically too this performance is absolutely top drawer. It’s an interesting score. It’s inventive and melodic but mostly it kind of flows; sort of like Tristan without the bombast (and arguably with much less drama). It suits Fleming extremely well. Where she has to push out vast amounts of beautiful tone including effortlessly floated high notes she does. One would expect no less from her. But she also finds some edge and drama when it’s needed which I don’t really think of as her strong suit. She’s very well supported. I particularly liked Larissa Diadkova’s Ježibaba. She’s got a beautiful dark, Slavic contralto and she acted really well. Her’s was a Ježibaba who knows what’s up and is somewhat above it; facilitating the action while clearly contemptuous of the follies of humans and Rusalka. She is particularly delicious in Act 3 with her advances/menaces to the kitchen boy. Franz Hawlata is the water gnome. It’s a role he’s played many times and I liked his solid Wagnerian baritone. The late Sergei Larin plays the prince. He’s got a solid spinto tenor and, unsurprisingly, sounds appropriately Slavic. Eva Urbanova sings the foreign princess and I liked her rather acid tone and spiteful attack; entirely appropriate as a foil for Fleming’s Rusalka. The sound from the Orchestra is very lovely. It’s the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris and James Conlon conducts.
Direction for DVD is by François Roussillon and he does OK. He stays back enough to allow us to see what Carsen is up to but does use mid range and close ups reasonably effectively. The stage seems very large (it’s the Paris Bastille theatre) and at times the singers seem almost lost on the huge set so I would probably have had the opera glasses out a good deal of the time anyway. It’s a 2 DVD set with a very good 16:9 picture but no extras (an interview with Carsen would have been very handy). Sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The DTS track sounded really good. It’s sung in Czech so you might want the English, French, German, Italian or Spanish subtitles! This is definitely a highly recommendable DVD set.
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