This DVD release
is of a production that is now twenty years old but still fondly
regarded by many with long memories as one of the finer achievements
of English National Opera (ENO). It comes into competition with
a DVD of a scrumptiously filmed Paris Opera (Bastille) production
of less than four years ago that stars Renée Fleming as Rusalka.
Both were originally filmed for TV.
takes a literal view of the work, unlike a recent live performance
from Britain’s Opera North where at least Rusalka sports a mermaid
fish-tail in an otherwise abstract, but effective rendering.
The Paris production is an art-deco affair whilst ENO has the
lakeside forest context set in a Victorian-looking bedroom interior
with a hole smashed through the floorboards to create something
that looks like a small swimming pool. The Wood Sprites climb
out of bed in long, white nightgowns while Rusalka rides a swing
with her ankles bound together – obvious symbolism for her entrapment
in her water nymph existence. Her father, the Water Gnome, is
also disabled, trundling around the stage in a wheel-chair.
All this is the creation of producer David Pountney and designer
Stefaos Lazarides, both distinguished in their fields. It could
easily fall flat but the company’s absolute commitment really
makes it work.
staging issues, what will tend to carry all before it in this
opera is Dvořák’s seductive score. Like Engelbert Humperdinck
in that other rather more famous late-romantic fairy-tale opera,
Hansel and Gretel, Dvořák combines delicate folksy
and dance elements with some lush scoring. This clearly betrays
considerable Wagnerian influence as does the skilful but sparing
use of leitmotiv. In addition he indulges some wonderful musical
pastoralisms, usually in the form of little woodwind solos.
Intoxicating melody abounds of which Rusalka’s famous Song
to the Moon is only a taste.
achieves a subtle balance between the self-contained tuneful
number and through-composed dramatic continuity. This accommodates
his dual skills as a superb tunesmith and symphonic organiser.
I am going to sit
on the fence when it comes to recommending which of these two
DVDs to go for, but this ENO version has the great strength
of outstanding team work. It is a real ensemble rendering that
surely derives from ENO’s character as an outfit much nearer
to a repertory company than an international opera house where
leading personnel jet in and out.. All the lead singers had
sung with the company before and worked with conductor Mark
Elder who had taken over the musical reins some years before.
The company was riding high at the time and the orchestra was
in great form. The result was artistic and emotional commitment
with ensemble playing and singing of perfection.
are always sung in English and the lead roles here are all taken
by primary English speakers. The singers have outstanding diction
but in spite of that it will never be possible to understand
everything, especially when Dvořák’s orchestration is riding
one of its swelling Wagnerian highs. It will therefore be a
relief to some to know that English subtitles are provided.
Eilene Hannan has a voice of bell-like clarity that fits with
the role’s youth, quite different from Renee Fleming’s more
plummy instrument in the Paris version. She acts better than
Fleming and in her scenes with the Prince matches Cornish tenor
John Treleaven’s voice well. His role provides the most highly
charged emotional moments and when his ringing heroic voice
opens up the spine tingles; at least mine did. Those present
at London’s Coliseum twenty years ago will not have been surprised
to find out, two decades later, that this man had meanwhile
developed into one of the most sought after Lohengrins and Siegfrieds
of his generation. He uses his vocal instrument with astonishing
flexibility, and at times lyricism and this wrings the maximum
emotional power out of his scenes with the heroine.
Some of the supporting
roles are substantial and are taken by seasoned, international
opera singers who were nevertheless loyal ENO regulars. The
smaller roles are immaculately played and sung, Fiona Kimm being
a particularly charismatic Kitchen Boy.
is unerring, keeping things moving so as to maintain dramatic
momentum but still allowing the music to breathe sufficiently
for the score’s beauty to be savoured.
from stage performances, the DVD version employs, sparingly,
some crafty visual superimpositions that add to the atmosphere.
be a “lyrical fairy tale” but it is also a tragedy of human
failings – of love, betrayal and regret - ending in an act of
Wagnerian sacrificial redemption. When Rusalka, in effect, kisses
her Prince to death to save him, Eilene Hannan and John Treleaven
provide us with an unbearably moving dénouement.
The American musician,
journalist and opera buff, John W Freeman has said, “Given a
production that accepts and projects its mood, Rusalka
can be a spellbinding experience.” This is such a production.