Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Bayerisches Staatsoper is exactly the sort of production traditionalists fume about over their port and cigars. It’s loosely based on the Fritzl and Kampusch imprisonment/child abuse cases. The Water Goblin, aided by his wife, Ježibaba, have their children; Rusalka and her sisters, imprisoned in a wet cellar under their house. The Water Gnome is clearly indulging in sexual abuse of the girls to the total indifference of his wife. Rusalka dreams of a life among humans and of love. She begs her mother to make her human/set her free. This happens and Rusalka, mute and tottering on red heels, is free to pursue her romance with the prince. Is this literal or all in Rusalka’s imagination? Does it matter? In Act 2 we find Rusalka completely lost in the coarse, sensual human/outside world. The Prince gets off rather enthusiastically with the Foreign Princess, there is a nightmare ballet of brides with dismembered deer carcasses and a chorus of rather gross sausage eating onlookers in alpine dress. It’s a world Rusalka can’t join. Lost, she longs to return to the safety of her cellar symbolised by her diving into an aquarium in the Prince’s palace. Bizarre as it sounds, up to this point it does make a kind of grim sense and it’s surprising how well the libretto fits. In Act 3 it rather comes unstuck. The Hunter and the Kitchen Boy confront Ježibaba in the cellar. The Water Gnome appears and kills the Hunter. The police arrive, just too late, and cart off the Water Gnome. The children appear to have been transferred to a very sterile institution of some sort. Somehow the Prince finds his way there and kills himself. A warder brings in the Water Gnome to sing his final aria before carting him off again. Rusalka is left with nothing. A few too many coincidences for my taste! Despite these plotting problems in the last act, my overall impression was of a concept that worked much more than it didn’t and pretty much justified itself.
There are also some amazing performances most notably from Christina Opolais in the title role. She doesn’t sing as beautifully as some of the competition but her acting has to be as good as anything I’ve seen, in opera or straight theatre. Her control of body movement, her facial expressions, her ability to convey emotion even when not singing are all extraordinary. In many ways Günther Groissböck’s Water Gnome is equally extraordinary. He is really creepy and switches between nasty and gorgeously lyrical with consummate ease. Klaus Florian Vogt, as the Prince, is maybe the best singer on show and Nadia Krasteva is an excitingly sensual Foreign Princess. The one less than ideal piece of casting for me was Janina Baechle as Ježibaba. I found her a bit anonymous and not really dark toned enough for the role. Orchestra and chorus both sound great and the one Czech in the piece, Tomáš Hanus, the conductor, directs a very fine reading of the score.
The production for Blu-ray is generally good. Video director Thomas Grimm is generally unfussy and lets us see the action but he does get a bad case of closeupitis in Act 2 when it’s very hard to figure out who is reacting to what in the scene where the Prince gets off with the Foreign Princess in front of Rusalka. He makes a similar mistake with the Act 2 ballet. The overall shape of the piece gets lost in a welter of gory details. Sound and picture are very good. The sound is nicely balance DTS-HD Master Audio and the picture is 16:9 1080p. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. The trilingual booklet contains a useful essay as well as a synopsis.
There’s a very worthwhile “Making of” bonus with interviews with General Manager Nicholaus Bachner, Kušej, Opolais, Groissböck, Vogt, Hanus and others. It’s very clear that a huge amount of care and hard work went into creating the piece and that the actors thoroughly bought into the concept (may be not so much Vogt). This really comes through in the performances of Opolais and Groissböck. I was interested too to see how much emphasis was put on Czech language skills which Hanus clearly sees as integral to the musicality of the piece.
This isn’t an easy watch intellectually or emotionally but it’s certainly much more than a shock horror or an exercise in directorial ego. That said, I suspect many people will find Robert Carsen’s intelligent and elegant Paris production more to their taste.
As always with Blu-ray reviews, until I get a Blu-ray drive for the computer, pictures are not screencaps but scrounged from the web.