Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

Just do the bloody show

Rusalka, Royal Opera House

Artillery Row On Opera

Covent Garden proudly claimed it has been working on this new production of Antonin Dvořák’s ninth opera for five years. You’d think in that time someone might have noticed the production was rubbish. Perhaps they could have helped out a director new to opera with tips on how it’s done, but that was apparently too much faff, so instead they just pumped out self-congratulatory stuff about how recyclable the whole thing is, which will come in handy when it’s binned. It’s fun, I suppose, that the word “sustainable” is now used apparently without irony for things like this, which are speeding opera towards utter irrelevance as if time were running out.

Rusalka happily resists being turned into a hectoring parable

Rusalka is a genuinely lovely opera, too, with a beautiful limpid surface and much beneath if you care to look. Despite its resonances it happily resists being turned into a hectoring parable (which never stops anyone trying). It’s rather retro for its date of 1900, hearkening back to 19th century Romanticism with huge sensual pleasure in traditional matters of orchestral texture and timbre, harmonies, tunes, voices. Then it has a sweet affecting heroine and a good sad story with a contingently radiant ending. It was a surprisingly late addition to the regular opera rep, only making it about 20 years ago into the first division.

The rusalki stalk the forest lakes and rivers of Europe: defrocked, evicted divinities wandering a place once their home. They entice humans who have pissed them off to watery graves — but sometimes they fall in love with their victims and pine for what people have that they lack: an immortal soul. Dvořák plunders Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid to create a work full of a yearning sadness and gorgeous nature music which reaches a sort of accepting peace at its end, despite the horror of lost love and salvation.

To become human, our Rusalka must sacrifice her voice until her Prince loves her truly, whereupon she will regain it and be awarded a soul into the bargain. It never happens: the Prince’s fickle head is turned from Rusalka’s silent loveliness by a vampish Foreign Princess. The mermaid loses not only the chance of being a proper woman but also of ever returning to watery innocence. There are plenty of metaphors in here for the inquiring director about our estrangement from the world, the redemptive but fragile nature of love, the divine potential and endless treachery of humans, the hideous risks associated with living life fully, the sad way our dreams may not come true; none addressed here, natch.

There has only been one previous staging at Covent Garden, in 2012 — a foolish Eurobabble thing apparently set in a Belorussian brothel, to purposes that remained unclear. On the plus side, we’re back in Dvořák’s original waterhole in this new show, co-directed by Natalie Abrahami and choreographer Ann Yee. This back-to-nature setting doesn’t come with any perceptible ideas about what the opera might actually be for, however, beyond some rather standardised tut-tut carry-on about our poor attitude to the natural world. Obviously, that superficial metaphor exists, but Dvořák was more concerned with more interesting things.

No matter, really, so long as you do something diverting with your ideas, but this is the most inert staging I’ve seen for ages. It has all the stagecraft of some whistlestop touring company from Moldavia doing the rounds with Soviet-style inaction. Chloe Lamford’s frond-fringed waterhole is a perfectly nice setting — nearly lifted out of Star Trek cheapness by Paule Constable’s beguiling lighting — but the choreography of the nature spirits who hang out there is surprisingly lame. There is none of the physical direction of singers that should illuminate character, psychology and human relations, with as little interaction between characters as in a concert. 

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

Arguably, Rusalka’s dramaturgy is a bit tragic anyway. The opera is rescued by its music, which is unfailingly gorgeous. Still, there was something prosaic about Semyon Bychkov’s conducting on opening night, with Rusalka’s hit “Song to the Moon” not creating too many frissons early on, and the second act — all bright and worldly as the action transfers from lake to palace — rather more effective. This act was also full of dreadful behaviour like smoking and turning trees into furniture, which made Rusalka sad. By the transcendent end of the final act, the correct kind of rapt, accepting, poetic sorrowfulness was emerging. It was a late but very welcome and beautiful coming together of voices and orchestra with a single unified vision, which no doubt will seep backwards through the show during the run. These things have short runs, though, and they really should be good to go on the first night.

The top draw here is Lithuanian soprano Asmik Gregorian, who has made this role her own around the world in various stagings. A petite but sumptuous singer, she might have lifted this show out of the humdrum, but on opening night she was sounding a little effortful, a bit short of her usual hypnotic radiance. This, no doubt, will also improve through the run. The real star turned out to be David Butt Philip as the Prince: passionate and forthright, with a real ping to his singing, plus a good deal of sensitivity, he was a genuine rounded character whose fretful dilemmas with lovely but silent Rusalka were rather touching. 

The directors tried more agitprop with minor characters, again only really amounting to teen gesturing. The witch Ježibaba (sung with her usual serious engagement by Sarah Connolly) was an attempt to transform Dvořák’s comedy-panto role into something angrier and sadder (described in the programme as “a wise, eternal spirit”, as if she were Wagner’s Erda). It could have been good had the directors actually done something about it on stage. The naughty Duchess (“the Prince’s political equal”, as the programme’s Red Guard-style re-education-camp billing tells us) was less effective, despite her hot dress, with top notes bursting out like a sudden squall. Three dryads sung their sub-Rhinemaiden tunes very nicely indeed.

The besetting sin of current London opera is the failure to just do the bloody show, the eagerness to take detours down virtue-signalling paths of very tangential relevance. As ENO’s long, slow suicide-bid (now perhaps beginning to be reversed) showed, people will eventually get sick of it. Here we have another example. Of course, much of the audience will probably take its superficial prettiness and lack of drama as a return to the old-style, pointless and brainless opera they thirst for. They won’t notice the attempted haranguing that’s going on, since it’s done as incompetently as everything else. Either way, Rusalka deserves something more grown-up — and so do we.

Rusalka runs until March 7.

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