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SEEN AND HEARD  INTERNATIONAL OPERA  REVIEW
 

Dvořák,  Rusalka: at Greek National Opera, conductor,  Jaroslav Kyzlink 8.3.2009 (BM)





The Greek premiere of Rusalka – a mere 108 years after it was first performed in Prague and soon became part of the standard repertoire of opera houses world-wide – gave rise to vociferous protests due to Marion Wassermann’s controversial staging. Members of the orchestra handed out flyers objecting to what they thought was a homosexual take on the story and gay rights advocates reciprocated with brochures of their own, resulting in a substantial delay till curtain time and prompting the administration of GNO to publish a press release emphasizing the director’s artistic freedom. Though they may have been ill advised to go for such an extreme reading of a work heretofore unknown to Athens audiences, at least it got people talking about this minor league southern European opera house. Even negative publicity is publicity, and GNO is in dire need of it.

According to the libretto, the nymph Rusalka falls in love with a mortal prince. To be with him, she sacrifices her immortality and her voice, but the prince soon tires of her seemingly cold silence. After she returns to her watery home, he comes there in search of her and begs her to kiss him and grant him peace, even though he knows that the touch of her lips will mean his death.

The potentially ‘interesting’ idea and the cause for all the hubbub was that Wasserman chose to model the prince on the famous historical figure of Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria and his inner struggle with his feminine side. Rusalka doesn’t actually exist – she is his female alter ego. The only trouble was that this drained all of the heart-rending romance and reflections on the human vs. the supernatural out of the plot. ‘Cold as ice’ may be a line frequently repeated by the singers, but what a shame for it to apply to a production of this extraordinarily passionate opera, so much so that one was better off just closing one’s eyes, because what we were being shown on stage seemed to have nothing to do with the astonishing music floating up from the orchestra pit.

GNO’s orchestra, though challenged, nevertheless rose to the occasion and managed a truly sophisticated rendition of Dvořák’s dark-hued score under Czech maestro Jaroslav Kyzlink, and this effort was not wasted. Nor were those of the superb cast of singers, featuring Natalia Ushakova as Rusalka, Pavel Černoch as the prince, - with a glorious voice approaching Heldentenor territory and no doubt soon to be ‘discovered’ internationally -  as well as Denisa Hamarová as Ježibaba the witch and Yevhen Sholako as Vodník. What did go to waste, though, were the carefully designed, lovely period costumes by Bruno Fatalot and the somewhat less impressive but versatile sets by Thierry Good. All in all, one can certainly fault the director for crossing the line by deciding to take the concept of repressed sexuality to extremes and telling a completely different story, rather than the original one from a new perspective, but she nonetheless managed to drive home one idea at the core of this fairy tale, which is that extreme disaster that can befall us if we deny our nature.

Rusalka was Dvořák’s ninth – and penultimate – opera. For it he created beautiful melodies portraying the characters and a lushly textured, stunning orchestration, literally giving the work everything he had, which in his case was quite a lot. If nothing else, I am certain that these sounds went straight to the heart of those hearing them for the first time in Greece, just as they did in Prague over a century ago. The music casts an inescapable spell, much like the stuff that fairy tales are made from and the essence of Rusalka herself. According to the program notes, she represents the soul of the prince, who needs a fantasy world to make his everyday life more bearable – and isn’t this exactly why many a human soul yearns for fairy tales and music?

Bettina Mara


Picture © Stefanos

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