Tuesday 9 October 2012

Opera Review - Rusalka - Glyndebourne on Tour

Glyndebourne on Tour
Credit Tristram Kenton

Dvorak’s Rusalka has been quite lucky recently with its UK outings, with strikingly different productions being presented by Grange Park Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Covent Garden and English Touring Opera. Now Glyndebourne on Tour have revived Melly Still’s Glyndebourne Festival production for their autumn tour. I caught the second performance of the tour, at Glyndebourne, the first night with the alternative cast, Wioletta Chodowicz in the title role and Ladislav Elgr as the Prince.

The production looks enormously handsome with Rae Smith’s sets in act 1 displaying a stylised forest glade with a pool in the middle. One of the defining features of the production was the way that a group of dark clad dancers manipulated anyone who went into the pool, so that Rusalka (Chodowicz), Vodnik (Mischa Schelomianski) and the Prince (Elgr) all appeared to swim in the water. This was magically effective, we even saw the Prince and Rusalka meeting during the prelude and Schelomianski delivered his arias whilst being perched atop dancers.

In an interview printed in the programme book, Still says that her intention was to tell the story clearly without too many layers of interpretation. She has made changes, in that she has softened what she sees as the opera’s misogyny, so that Jezibaba (Anne Mason) is a more approachable granny like figure, and the wood nymphs are more dangerous in that they attack travellers.

For the lively opening scene Schelomianski, looking suitably unappetising but hugely priapic, was delightfully tempted and teased by the Wood Nymphs (Evgeniya Sotnikova, Michaela Kapustova, Alessandra Volpe plus chorus).

Polish soprano Wioletta Chodowicz would seem to have an idea voice for the role of Rusalka, a gleaming top with a reasonable degree of heft to the voice, and the ability to sing Dvorak’s lines cleanly and evenly. During act 1 she did not seem entirely settled down, with a tendency to approach notes from below. Her Hymn to the Moon lacked the power and beauty which I think she would be capable of bringing to it. Some of this may be due to the staging. Chodowicz did not appear to be as comfortable as the others when being manipulated by the dancers and her mermaid’s tail was ridiculously long, requiring a lot of negotiation. Add to this, that for the first half of the Hymn to the Moon, she was required to singing lying on her back. In fact, throughout the opera Still seemed to be rather fond of having Rusalka and the Prince deliver key numbers whilst prone, which is not always helpful in an opera house.

Anna Mason was more granny than scary witch as Jezibaba, but she was given backup in the form of the male chorus all dressed like her and looking profoundly alarming. The conjuration scene, complete with cauldron, fake pole-cat, bat, snake etc, elicited titters from the audience and the whole, both dramatically and musically, lacked the edge which I think it needs. Mason sang well, but was just too soft grained and cosy. After all, everyone is meant to be scared of her and giving her the transvestite chorus seemed to weaken the character’s impact.

Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr is quite a find; tall, slim and personable with a lovely lyric tenor voice. His voice has a fascinating dark quality to it which suggests that it may develop interestingly. Frankly, at the moment he lacks the heft for some of the biggest moments in the role of the Prince. Dvorak’s orchestration can be quite elaborate and presupposes voices which can rise over it cleanly and evenly. Sensibly Elgr did not push his voice and managed his resources finely, giving us some powerful climactic moments at the end of act 1.

By the end of act 1, I confess that I was wondering about conductor Jakub Hrusa. He clearly loves the opera, but he seemed to take some passages, particularly the less dramatic, more incidental ones, at a too leisurely pace as if he was content to admire the gorgeous detail in Dvorak’s score. And there was much to admire, but pacing in act 1 did not seem ideal.

Robert Poulton and Eliana Pretorian as the gamekeeper and the kitchen girl (rather than boy) contributed a lively and entertaining opening scene to act 2. Still’s production her was very busy and bustling, not only with the staff preparing the palace, but with guests arriving for the wedding. The whole of act 2 was imaginatively and absorbingly staged.

For the first half of act 2, Rusalka is without a voice and the singer must find a way of conveying emotion. Chodowicz has not quite managed this yet. She looked lovely and very appealing as the water nymph out of her element, but she did not quite keep the focus of attention so that the scenes seemed somewhat lacking. The chorus’s treatment of her was not as cruel as in some productions.

Another of Still’s innovations was that Tatiana Pavlovskaya’s Foreign Princess was not quite the icy super-bitch she usually is. Pavlovskaya looked and sounded fabulous, poised and chic. Her scenes with Elgr developed into something quite dramatic and the two clearly conveyed that there was still a spark between them. Elgr brilliantly brought out the prince’s essentially shallowness and his inability to resist temptation.

Schelomianski was enormously powerful when he appeared in this act and his long scene with Chodowicz lifted the dramatic temperature enormously. And by now Chodowicz had found her form

Act 3 returned to a slightly revised, perhaps creepier version of the act 1 setting. The scene with Poulton and Pretrian was played more seriously without the laughs that it can sometimes engender and it was her that the wood nymphs showed their mettle as they taunted, tempted and finally attacked the gamekeeper. Though the action went far beyond what was described in the music.

Mason’s scene with Chodowicz was notable for the intensity the two generated and the wonderful bleakness with which Mason described how Rusalka could return to being a water nymph.

The final scene between Chodowicz and Elgr was profoundly moving. Chodowicz sang with power, using her beautifully gleaming voice admirably, and Elgr whilst not the most powerful of singers in the role, convinced by his intelligence and musicality.

Chodowicz showed that she is potentially a Rusalka to be reckoned with and I suspect that her interpretation, particularly in the first act, will grow as the run progresses. Elgr is an interesting and arresting lyric tenor with a fascinating voice which he uses with intelligence and musicality. His prince was very finely sung indeed and I hope to hear him again soon.

Mason did everything asked of her as Jezibaba, but the softening of the edges of the character left us with a rather unscary witch, too comfortable of character and with the music lacking the edge which was needed.

Schelomianski was impressive and convincing as Vodnik, managing to be repulsive and scary, but bringing out his love and care for his daughter, Rusalka. His scenes with Chodowicz imbued their relationship with a moving power.

Sotnikova, Kapustova and Volpe were delightful and slightly scare wood nymphs. The chorus entered into things with a will, whether as wood nymphs, water nymphs, party guests or Jezibaba’s familiars.

Jakub Hrusa drew very fine playing from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, bringing out the details of Dvorak’s orchestration. Everything was lovely, too lovely perhaps. By the end of the opera I was still in two minds about Hrusa’s conducting, and felt that he lingered too much on loving detail and that the drama could have benefited from some more dramatic thrust.

Most of the productions of the opera that I have seen have included, to a greater or lesser extent, some psychological interpretation. But Still gave the audience the chance to make their own connections. Where she weakened the drama was, I think, in not realising that scary witches like Jezibaba are archetypes which have a strong role to play in such stories; Still’s softening of the edge of the character did the opera no favours. But this was an entirely enchanting production which told the story without trying to impose a point of view on the audience, and captured the fairy tale element in stunning visual form.

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