Sunday 11 March 2012

Rusalka at Covent Garden

In their autobiography, Hinge and Bracket refer to their time with the Rosa Charles Opera Company including performances of Turandot, undertaken after the sets had been destroyed so that the production was mounted with the Turandot costumes, but sets from HMS Pinafore; there is even a picture of Dame Hilda (I think) in Turandot costume on the poop deck of the HMS Pinafore.

The opening scenes of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production of Rusalka felt a bit like this. (The production was new to Covent Garden, revival director Samantha Seymour, but already performed at Salzburg; we saw the production on Friday 9th March) All the cast were dressed as if for a traditional production, Camilla Nylund's Rusalka sported a fish-tail on her lower half and the wood nymphs (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) behaved just like stage wood-nymphs.

But the set, rather than being a woodland glade, was a terrible, tacky 1970's interior complete with shiny plastic sofas,  and ruched curtains, looking just like a brothel; the set from Lulu perhaps.

Only when Jezibaba (Agnes Zierko) appeared as an elderly woman with a walking frame did anyone in contemporary costumes appear. Act 2 moved into something more consistently 20th century, though the way the chorus was dressed in a range of characteristic German costumes, I felt that we were missing some element of satire of the production. The prince's palace was essential the same interior as Act 1, minus the plastic furniture but plus a piano, now looking like a cheap restaurant.

For Act 3, we returned to the brothel, but this time the cast were dressed as inhabitants of the brothel, with the wood nymphs now tarts, Jerzibaba as the madam and Vodnik (Alan Held) as some sort of elderly pimp. Once Rusalka died we moved into more schlock horror territory with Rusalka wandering around during the final duet with a very obvious bloody wound in her stomach.

I have to admit that I just didn't work out what the directors were aiming at, there were simply too many ideas thrown at the piece, as if they didn't quite trust it. If you want to make the piece be about a prostitute trying to find love, then fine, do so; but do it consistently. Also, during the ball scene, Rusalka was treated more like a doll than a real person, and her dress was dismembered with bits turning up during the later scenes. Then there was the issue of the cat. In Act 1, Rusalka as a toy stuffed cat, to which she sings her hymn to the moon. Then during the scene with Jezibaba, the witch's familiar appears as a person in a cat suit, a giant cat who fully participates in Rusalka's change and at one point has sex with her (rapes her?). In the final act, Jezibaba as Madam has a real cat.

Why the rape? Did they want to add the idea that the opera is about a sexual coming of age? But Pountney did that in the 1980's ENO production in a far more sophisticated and convincing fashion. Then the ending, sure is a bit weird with Rusalka as one of the undead (that's what's in the score, she's not alive but can't die). But what had the directors' 'exorcist' routine to do with the rest of the opera.

I can forgive the piece being ugly (set designs Barbara Ehnes, costume designs Anja Rabes), but not its incoherence and lack of support for Dvorak's drama. Various companies, ENO, Glyndebourne and Grange Park notably, have shown that if you trust the piece then it works. ETO even did a very successful small scale touring version set in the Caribbean.

All this would have made for a poor night in the theatre, if it hadn't been for the simply stunning performances. Much of this must go down to the conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, but as someone pointed out a propos of the Richard Jones Ring at Covent Garden, if you don't like a director's production style but they get stunning performances from the cast then they must have been doing something right.

I was nervous about Camilla Nylund; I'd been disappointed with her recital disc and a couple of reviewers had said that her performance as Rusalka wasn't as good as her Salzburg account, in the original production. But, quite simply, she was just about the best Rusalka that I've ever heard, being nearly ideal in the role. Nylund combined beauty of tone, excellence of line with a goodly reserve of power which meant that Dvorak's vocal lines were carried evenly and beautifully over his orchestration. Plus she looked good and was a profoundly touching actress. Her Hymn to the Moon was just ravishing, but almost everything else was well done too.

She was ably partnered by Brian Hymel; in physique he looked rather like a rugby player but succeeded both visually and aurally in making the Prince something heroic when needed. The Prince is a difficult role at the part is tricky to bring off, requiring as it does a certain combination of power and litheness, perhaps in a way that we have lost. Hymel responded well and whilst he was a little solid as an actor, he managed to make the Prince's hesitations something touching. And his closing solo was profoundly moving.

Agnes Zwierko was just wonderful as Jezibaba, whether being a batty old lady or the rather heartless Madam, Zwierko had all the notes for the role and clearly relished the nastiness which the directors brought out, but her incantation when Rusalka is changed into a human was a great piece of singing as well.

Alan Held was a fine Vodnik, thrilling when cursing Rusalka and touching when she returns and dies; even though he had to play Act 3 as if drowned in drink. Petra Lang played the Foreign Princess as a glamorous super-bitch, giving a relatively unsubtle performance.

The remainder of the cast were of an equally high standard. Devin, Pierard and Gringyte looked and sounded good whether being Wood Nymphs (Act 1) or tarts in barely there clothing (Act 3). Daniel Grice was the huntsman in Act 1, Gyula Orendt the Gamekeeper and Ilse Eerens the Kitchen Boy. Orendt's character seemed to be sex obsessed as he had sex with the kitchen boy during their scene and then, of course, in Act 3, the visit to Jezibaba was his taking the kitchen boy to visit a brothel for the first time. In fact the scene between Eerens and Zwierko was hilariously done as Zwierko relished the prospect of having sex with the young man, and started to undress 'him'. The amazing thing was that Dvorak's music did fit.

That was the problem with this production, they were exploring ideas which are present in Dvorak's music but presented in such a haphazard and ugly way that it made the production count for little.

The opera was presented with a single interval, after Act 2; thus making the first half a rather long 110 minutes. Being as the performance started at 7.30pm and finished at 10.50pm, I did wonder whether we couldn't have started earlier and had a 2nd interval. The opera, the music, the drama don't depend on Act 1 flowing into Act 2, in fact they benefit from the pause; and the scene change necessitated a 2 or 3 minute pause anyway. Whilst on the subject of the scenery, we never did fathom why the scenery kept moving about and swaying during Act 3.

Luckily things were saved by the very strong musical performance, all directed by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, whose account of this lovely score was rich and subtle. The ROH orchestra responded will to him; rarely has Dvorak's orchestration sounded so expressive.

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