Melly Still’s production of Dvorák’s Rusalka, recorded at Glyndebourne in 2019 got rave reviews and, judging by the audience reaction on the recording. was enthusiastically received in the house. Unfortunately I don’t think it works all that well on video despite some rather stunning stage pictures and generally strong performances.
It’s a mostly straightforward production. There’s no sign of a concept though it is highly sexual and not by any means like the sanitized pap of the Met production. It also has some cool effects, especially the way the water nymphs are “flown” onto the stage with enormous tails. There’s an extra feature on the disk explaining how this was done. There’s also a lot going on with dancers, extras, etc but much of it is upstage and very dimly lit. In fact, many scenes are very dark with almost no part of the stage lit to a normal viewing level. In the theatre one adapts to that but it’s a problem on video. The video director either has to show a picture in which there’s, at best, a small brightly lit image with “stuff” dimly visible in the background or he has to focus on the spotlit principals. Mostly François Roussillon takes the latter approach although there are passages where it’s all really dark!. I don’t think he’s wrong to do what he does but the “subtle clues” that, apparently, cue off our collective ideas of what a fairy tale is get mostly lost. There are even points where the audience erupts with laughter for reasons that are completely unfathomable to anyone watching the video.
So what do we see. Acts 1 and 3 are set around a pool in a forest. The water nymphs are mostly suspended above the stage (up to 8m above it) and some of them turn somersaults. There’s lots of wood nymph action with dancers and black clad figures throwing characters about. There’s a lot of suggestive prancing and plenty of underwear. The idea of the forest as a dangerous place where sexual mores are not regulated comes across clearly. The Vodnik is toady and Ježibaba is enthusiastically witchy; dismembering several stuffed animals in the potion scene.
The Prince’s castle in Act 2 is rather abstract with the main feature being a sloping gangway down which guests progress and dance. It’s quite modern in a sort of exaggerated version of high fashion formal wear. The Foreign Princess is less overtly sexual than in some productions and it’s really Rusalka who is being overtly sexual (unsuccessfully) with the Prince. There’s a definite feeling that sexuality here is repressed and formalized in a way that’s quite opposite to the forest. It all works but the sense that something rather important is missing on the video is constant.
The performances are interesting. There is some really fine singing from Evan Leroy Johnson as the Prince. He’s got a powerful, ardent tenor and he looks the part too. Alexander Roslavets has a proper Slavic bass quality and makes a sympathetic Vodnik. Zoya Tsererina has a rich powerful soprano and a nicely sardonic air as the Foreign Princess and Patricia Bardon is obviously having a whale of a time as Ježibaba. Then there’s Sally Matthews’ Rusalka. I thought she got off to a bit of a slow start. She has a nice enough voice but perhaps not as beautiful as, say, a young Renée Fleming but she is a terrific actor and just gets better in that department as the piece progresses. In the end it’s a very fine and convincing overall performance.
The three wood nymphs are good too. They have a lot of jumping around to do and still manage to sing with accuracy and spirit. Vuvu Mpofu is especially fine but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Anna Pennisi and Alyona Abramova either. Colin Judson and Alix Le Saux make the most of their comic cameos as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Girl.
Robin Ticciati’s conducting was considered controversial by some who saw the show live. It was said that he covered the singers far too often. Certainly he gets a very full blooded sound from the London Philharmonic. The balance issue isn’t as noticeable on disk of course but it’s oddly the case that the voices are balanced further back on the stereo sound track (much further back than normal on an opera video) than on the surround sound (DTS-HD-MA on Blu-ray) where the voices are more prominent.
The picture quality on Blu-ray is good enough to give some idea of what’s going on in the dark and the surround sound is vivid. The booklet has a synopsis, an essay about Rusalka and its treatment n the contemporary operas world plus some notes from the director. Subtitles are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
Problems with the filming aside I think this has plenty to offer the person who wants an essentially traditional Rusalka though I prefer Carsen’s Paris production which features one of Fleming’s better video performances but I don’t think it’s currently available. Other than that, modern recordings are mostly quite concept driven. It’s a shame the McVicar production hasn’t been recorded really.