Rusalka has finally made it to Covent Garden, but, in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's wilfully shabby production, it has arrived in inexpressive and unlovely form. The boos and countering cheers that greeted the directorial team at the curtain—even though this was branded a new production, it was first seen in Salzburg in 2008 and was here entrusted to a revival director, Samantha Seymour—suggest that, as with Christof Loy's Tristan, critical reaction might find itself crudely chracterized as either progressive or conservative (the booing has already been picked up as news in the mainstream press). But, while it's good to have a bit of Regietheater at Covent Garden, especially after several months of inadequately re-heated revivals, such arguments should not detract from the basic defects and ineptitude of Wieler and Morabito's production.
One main problem is the fact that, in an opera about belonging and sacrifice, they never make clear where Rusalka belongs and what she sacrifices. They transport the action to an Eastern European brothel, but make no attempt to deal with resultant inconsistencies: in early Act 1, Rusalka remains a mermaid, too often left to flop about in drama-workshop style on the floor. Her watery realm and the Vodnik's lair are hidden down stage beneath a trap door. The Song to the Moon is addressed to a toy cat, who then, as 'Mourek', an actor in cat costume, takes part in Ježibaba's incantations, tearing Rusalka's tail off before, with tedious inevitability, climbing on top of her for a bit of comedy humping. There was something undignified, too—especially in an opera that's all about exploitation made possible by a desire for recognition and love—of forcing three of the Royal Opera's fine Young Artists (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) to cavort as Wood Nymphs for the whole of Act 3 in their underwear.
The production began to gain some sort of focus in Act 3, however, where Rusalka stabs herself early on, returning to greet the Prince as an 'undead avanger' (according to the synopsis). Her final kiss becomes a curt execution, creating a fascinating friction against the final duet and subsequent apotheosis. The Prince (Bryan Hymel) died too far from the trap door and had to help Rusalka dump him in with some fish-like wriggles of his own, meaning that the moment's power was diluted; but finally, here, we were presented with a reading that ran profitably against the grain of the opera.
One of the main points of Morabito's tortuous programme essay traces the historical religious reasons for demonizing traditional spirits and branding them ineligible for Christian redemption, and various related elements—a crucifix, and a priest presiding over Act 2's party—were dotted about. There was an obsession with stilettos, too—a corollary of an obsession with being able to walk, I suppose—but there were also liberal sprinklings of much else that just seemed wilfully ugly and cryptic. (And there remains something rather uncomfortable about a Swiss-German directorial pair drawing on the short-hand of Eastern-bloc shabbiness.) This reluctance to focus on any key ideas led to a rather tedious evening, in which one struggled to care about Rusalka's fate; I'm happy to be shocked and challenged—indeed, Rusalka is a deeply disturbing work that demands such treatment—but here I was, for the most part, just bored.
Thankfully, however, the musical values were very high. If the directors discouraged emotional engagement, at least Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Covent Garden debut, demanded it with a gloriously colourful and impassioned reading of Dvořák's wonderful score. Dances were whipped up with bacchanalian delight, climaxes squeezed and caressed, textures finely calibrated; and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House clearly enjoyed playing for him. Apart from Agnes Zwierko's strident, over-the-top Ježibaba, the excellent international cast lacked among its principals any Slavic singers that might have brought extra character to their roles. Camilla Nyland, a veteran from the production's original 2008 run in Salzburg, took time to establish herself as Rusalka, with the voice initially lacking creaminess and heft, but she warmed up well as the evening progressed, and acted with impressive commitment to Wieler-Morabito's vision. Alan Held, also brought over from the Salzburg cast, was a solid but hardly soulful Vodník. Hymal's Prince was astonishingly secure and smoothly sung, but, perhaps in part due to the production, a touch bland. Petra Lang didn't exactly make light work of the Foreign Princess, but sang the difficult, brief role with all the security and power one could want. Gyula Orendt and Ilse Eerens made the most of their opportunities as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy, roles rendered redundant here. In all, though, despite the high musical values, this was an disappointing Royal Opera debut for Rusalka.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo credit: Clive Barda