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Dvořák,  Rusalka: Soloists,  Bavarian State Opera, Conductor: Tomáš Hanus – Munich, 4.11.2010 (BM)

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka. Picture © Bavarian State Opera/Wilfried Hösl

In the run-up to the premiere of Munich’s new Rusalka, the tabloid press had a field day over controversial opera director Martin Kušej's intention to use genuine deer carcasses as props, while the day after had the more serious dailies accusing him  of believing in the dark side of fairy tales only. Be that as it may, the good news is that he believes in using them to tell a true story and seeks to make contemporary sense of them, in this case choosing to make the water nymph Rusalka the victim of an incestuous father, who locks her up in a water-logged cellar with her sisters (the impressive split sets, not to mention the palace ballroom - aquarium, crucifix and al - are by Martin Zehetgruber). Horrendous crimes like this are probably committed more often than we will ever find out, since the victims tend to remain silent, as does Rusalka as soon as she escapes into the ‘real’ world, where she longs to find true love. But alas – and again, this is common among survivors of such ordeals – she is no longer capable of establishing an emotional bond, of expressing her passion in terms decipherable by human beings. Her foray out into their world, teetering on her high heels like a new born deer on its spindly legs, is doomed from the very beginning and is destined to end in tragedy.


Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais took to this part like a fish to water (read an interview with her here), after withdrawing from her debut at the Met and agreeing to replace Nina Stemme at very short notice – but she got what may well turn out to be the role of her life in return. She brought a raw intensity and a beautifully nuanced voice with marvelous top notes to her role, alongside an acting talent that the director was only too happy to show off: first he had her wallowing in the cellar water, then doing a zombie impression above ground. Nonetheless, she was almost outdone by her colleague Günther Groissböck’s performance as her father, the water goblin. Kušej’s productions usually do little to improve the reputation of the male sex, and this one was no exception, with Vodnik forcing Rusalka into a mermaid gown in the first scene and the Prince attempting to pull a wedding dress over her head soon after (costumes by Heidi Hackl). Groissböck sang the monstrous rapist in a grimy bathrobe and toting a plastic carrier bag, but with authority and not a trace of sentimentality, his powerful bass particularly fine in the high register, while Klaus Florian Vogt as the Prince made up for what his tenor lacked in color on this evening by the sheer fervor he brought to the final “Liebestod” scene. His foreign princess, Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, has made a name for herself as Carmen and was hence aptly cast as a sex bomb, but lent a slight overdose of vibrato to a role that usually goes to sopranos. Who knows if Kušej was keen to otherwise avoid that old mezzo-cliché - witches, bitches and britches - by way of a further offbeat decision, which was to allow striking young Tara Erraught to appear as a girl in role of the turnspit, or kitchen boy. Having said that, making a frumpy rather than an alluring witch out of Janina Baechle as Ježibaba was definitely an unfortunate choice, although it was matched by her voice, which was accurate, but not exactly seductive.


But these are minor complaints about what should by rights go down as a landmark Rusalka, not least thanks to the lush orchestral sound created by the talented Czech conductor Tomáš Hanus and Bavarian State Opera’s excellent chorus, which has recently become more interested in colors than sheer volume under Sören Eckhoff. The beauty of Dvořák’s score and the evils of Kušej’s waterworld do not really contradict each other. Glossing over the ills of the world we live in is essential to our survival.

Bettina Mara

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