Rusalka at the ROH
After the much publicised “boos” at the Royal Opera House on the opening night of the new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had purchased tickets a few months back for no other reason than the fact that I love Dvořák’s music and this is a good fairy tale for grown-ups.
I went to the performance last Sat, 3rd March and frankly, I did understand why it was booed though I must say that it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. I still enjoyed it but this was entirely due to the excellent cast, in particular Camilla Nylund, as the water nymph Rusalka, and the beautiful interpretation of the score by young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The production… Hum! Well, I’m sorry to say but it was pretentious, vulgar, at times crass, and did not work at all with the music.
Dvořák’s score is exquisitely romantic, full of beautiful melodies, moving, delicate and sensitive. The production set in a brothel did not really fit in with the music. I wasn’t bothered about the wood nymphs in scanties or the fact that it was a modern production. Modern is often good and it works well if the score is respected but sadly, this did not happen here. There were some good aspects: Rusalka’s fish tail, the witch’s giant cat during the transformation of Rusalka, the water nymph, into a human but there were too many antics on stage. The idea of having the singers roll and move on the floor to give the illusion of swimming through the water, although a good one, didn’t work at all. Simply, these are opera singers, not ballet dancers. They don’t have the flexibility or the lightness and grace of movement that a dancer naturally possesses, so, often, they appeared more like bad behaved children having a tantrum rather than anything else. And what about the animal (it wasn’t quite clear what animal it was) being prepared in the kitchen with all the fake blood? Supposedly, an attempt at realism to show the hard work in the kitchens of a palace. Was it needed? Was neither interesting nor funny. Personally, I found it unpleasant and detracting from the music. Worst of all is the scene where the young palace page (the character is supposed to be a young adolescent) lands by chance in the brothel where the old witch attempts to seduce him, beginning to open his trousers in a rather lecherous manner. I didn’t understand why this scene was necessary. Were the directors (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito) trying to alert us to the fact that an old woman attempting to seduce a minor is abusive and horrible? If yes, they did achieve it but the point is that it has no place in the opera and it doesn’t consider the subtleties of Dvořák’s beautiful score.
A real shame, as I’ve already mentioned, the cast was superb, the orchestra of the ROH gave one of their best performances and the conductor was brilliant. The need to captivate young audiences leads sometimes opera directors and opera houses to extremes such as this; however in a time where period dramas are flourishing on television (think of the success of Downton Abbey on ITV) and fairy tales and fantasy stories, dark or otherwise, continue to enthral audiences, is it really necessary to spoil wonderful music? I think not. Young or old; anybody loves a good story matched by great music even if not realistic! Who cares? Escapism is a good thing and as valuable as anything thought provoking or that makes us ponder on human society.