English Touring Opera has been riding the crest of a self-generated wave in the past few years: under the leadership of James Conway the company has produced a string of excellent touring productions, with dramatic, scenic and musical values all well to the fore.
But sooner or later the company is bound to come up against a piece which taxes its limited resources in one way or another, and after this Snape Rusalka, I cannot help thinking that ETO has not quite done itself justice. The respectful but muted applause at the end of the evening told its own story.
The stage picture looks fine. As director, Conway has transposed the setting to Haiti in 1915, at the outset of American domination there. The single set has two criss-crossing wooden walkways centre-stage, with water beneath and a watery moon above. For Act 2, side panels slide in to denote a colonial, bamboo house and a red velvet rear curtain indicates civilisation rather than primitive forest. The cast of ten use the space effectively and are well blocked, and Conway exploits the different heights he can achieve on the walkways to good effect.
In the Snape acoustic, the reduced orchestration by Iain Farrington works wonderfully well: string quartet plus double bass, usual woodwind and harp produce a warm, clear account of this melodic score that positively glows at times. Credit must go to Alex Ingram for a firm grip on his players, a good steady pulse (but just a shade too soporific at times) and a fine sense of Dvorak's melodic line. I particularly liked some fine oboe and clarinet playing and some sonorous work on the harp. So the musical values that underpinned the work done by the cast were secure: the sound of this Rusalka was transparent, light and airy.
But the singing values, on this occasion, were less good. Perhaps both principal roles were having off nights, but I did not take to the Rusalka of Donna Bateman at all. To my ear she employed far too much vibrato, an impression that was only confirmed in the third act when, subdued, she produced her best singing of the evening in a soft, unforced register that gave me hope of better things in future. But if a Rusalka fails to move you with her 'invocation to the moon', then something is amiss, and I fear that on this showing it was.
As the Prince, Richard Roberts was frankly disappointing. The upper end of his voice simply was not working (was he indisposed?) and the sound was unlovely. The falsetto excursions in his final ariawere pretty excruciating, again indicating that the voice itself was under strain. He also under-characterised the part, singing with exactly the same phrasing and melodic intensity both to Rusalka and to the Foreign Princess, her rival – something wrong here, surely?
Two of the singers stood out for me, however. As the water spirit, portrayed in this production as a hard-working, strong water carrier who straddles the voodoo world of the forest citizens and the 'civilised' world of the occupiers, Keel Watson gave an excellent performance of a key role. His bass baritone has plenty of character, and he sounded just as much at ease right at the top of the voice as in his darker depths. His tone is natural and open and his stage personality delightful. This was music drama as it should be.
And then in Act Three one of the forest girls, Abigail Kelly, took to the walkway and showed in her delightful mini aria exactly how natural and pleasing unforced singing can be. No vibrato at all, just pure tone, articulating her 'jet black' refrain naturally and simply – she gave me a few moments of light soprano singing that I had been waiting for all evening.
Fiona Kimm as Jezibaba, the 'wise woman' of the forest with voodoo skills, did nothing wrong but seemed to me to be underperforming the role: there was no real spite nor menace to the voice, even though she was secure and (unlike some) absolutely in time with her conductor's beat. That leaves Camilla Roberts as the Foreign Princess, an ungrateful role if ever there was one which did not really emerge here as anything special, although the middle of her voice had pleasing warmth and I should like to reserve judgement until I hear her in a more rounded role.
Absent the sheen and lushness of a full orchestra, some interesting things emerge in Dvorak's score. The Wagnerian echoes, both the Tristan chord and the bits of the Ring on low strings and bassoon, are really quite crude when exposed in this way. And the orchestration of the second act, as reduced here, almost takes us into the realms of the musical – especially when the Prince, in white linen suit, looks across the walkway at his be-costumed Rusalka. I thought simultaneously of Madama Butterfly and of South Pacific. Perhaps the director had thoughts of his own in these directions – but they do take us a long way from the forests of Bohemia and the world of Undine.
So I came away underwhelmed, mainly by the execution of this Rusalka on the night. It lacked the wow factor. But my gratitude and admiration for ETO is undimmed and I look forward to La Tragédie de Carmen with just as much anticipation as ever.