David McVicar’s production of Dvořák’s Rusalka opens with a prelude while the overture plays. We see the Foreign Princess and the Prince. She appears to be upbraiding him and he is drinking hard. Are we seeing a failed/forced marriage that in reality the Prince made rather than some preferred alternative? Is what we see over the next three and half hours some dream version of what might have been? In this most Freudian of operas, why not?
What we do see, at first glance, is a classic fairy tale version of Rusalka. We aren’t on the streets of Brussels or in the basement of Fritzl. Water sprites are water sprites, goblins are goblins and princes are princes. But perhaps all is not so straightforward. There’s a very clear sexual tension going through everything that happens and even the “pool in the forest” is not quite what it seems. It seems rather to be the remains of some sort of hydroelectric project and the dam/generating room is inhabited by Ježibaba who always appears to be accompanied by smoke as well as rather cool crows. She is the guardian of the liminal space between the human and the spirit worlds. Is she also symbolic of the transformation of natural energy to industrial energy? There is a very fin de siècle zeitgeist in this production.
Act 1, on the face of it, is classic but the cavortings of the various sprites are highly sexualized; waggling their backsides and showing their underwear etc. The use of dance and dancers is beautifully integrated, much helped by the energetic and skilful participation of the trio of wood nymphs sung/danced by Anna-Sophie Neher, Jamie Groote and Lauren Segal. In the middle of all this cavorting the basic conflict of Rusalka’s wish to enter the human world and the Vodnik’s foreboding plays out. Sondra Radvanovsky, in the title role, sings with great beauty and a very clean sound. The famous Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song to the Moon) is very beautiful. Štefan Kocàn is, at once, a very sympathetic and a rather sinister Vodnik with a really solid bass voice. Ježibaba, played by Elema Manistina, is a sort of steam punk witch surrounded by her very dark and threatening familiars. She plays it very straight which makes Rusalka’s (literally) first faltering steps all the more moving. The first introduction of Pavel Černoch as the Prince shows him to have a very secure and rather beautiful tenor.
Act 2 opens in the kitchen. It’s a really tall, narrow space and Lauren Eberwein’s Turnspit is energetically stuffing a goose. There are enormous carcasses hanging from the ceiling and guts. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the movie Delicatessen. Anyway there’s some very fine singing from Lauren and from Matthew Cairns’ Gamekeeper. Ensemble Studio members, past and present, are a huge part of this show.
The great hall, when we move to it, is stunning. It’s high and has the appearance of almost disappearing into the distance. Also more dead animals. The basic drama of the Prince, Rusalka and the Foreign Princess (the very capable Keri Alkema) plays out straightforwardly enough with, given what else has been going on, remarkably few sexual antics (which rather reinforces my thoughts about the prologue). The ballet in the middle of the Act is quite brilliant. It’s the best use of classical ballet I’ve seen at the COC (where dance is not usually a strongpoint). The choreography is by Andrew George and it cleverly combines absolutely classic 19th century pointe with an emphasis on the salacious aspects of the audience reaction to ballet in that period; all those shocking short skirts and muscular buttocks. The dancers aren’t credited in the programme which is a shame as they are really good and crucial to the production.
Act 3 is tricky. It’s main purpose is to resolve what has gone before and it takes a while to do it. It’s where more “conceptual” productions tend to come unstuck. Here it’s workmanlike, if not as inventive, as what has come before. There’s some comic relief in the scene with Ježibaba, the Gamekeeper and the Turnspit. Anna-Sophie Neher does remarkably well in a dance heavy cameo. There’s much fine singing. And so we progress to the “resolution” in which, as the Vodnik says, “All sacrifices are futile.” The Prince chooses death. Rusalka commends his soul to God, and returns to her place in the depths of the lake as a demon. It’s not a comforting dream.
So the production works at two levels. There’s nothing there to upset the traditionalists but there’s much to think through if that’s your thing. The singing is really good across the board from stars like Radvanovsky and Černoch to the many young singers who make such a fine job of the supporting roles. The COC Orchestra plays fabulously for Johannes Debus. It’s another of those productions where director and conductor seem to be on the same page to good effect. The dance elements are imaginative, brilliantly performed and well integrated into the action. It’s a very good evening at the opera.
Dvořák’s Rusalka plays at the Four Seasons Centre until October 26th.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper (1 to 6); Chris Hutcheson (last)