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Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka - A Lyric Fairy Tale in three acts Op.114 (1901) [156:00]
Rusalka: Kristine Opolaďs
Prince: Klaus Florian Vogt
Water Goblin: Günther Groissböck
Ježibaba: Janina Baechle
Foreign Princess: Nadia Krasteva
Gamekeeper: Ulrich Reß
Kitchen Boy: Tara Erraught
Wood Nymphs: Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, Okka von der Damerau
Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Orchestra/TomአHanus
rec. Nationaltheater Munich, Germany, 20-26 October 2010
Direction: Martin KuŠej
Sets: Martin Zehetgruber
Costumes: Heidi Hackl
Lighting: Reinhard Traub
UNITEL CLASSICA 706408 [2 DVDs: 156:00 + 36:00 (documentary)]

Experience Classicsonline

As a reviewer I receive all sorts of operatic productions; most I am glad to say give me great pleasure and joy. Some, alas, do not. The 2001 Opéra National du Rhin’s tasteless production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, for instance, was, for me, revolting enough but this Rusalka, to my eyes, really does take the biscuit.

The talented and beautiful young Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais may shine in the title role but it’s a pity she had to be associated with this Rusalka. It is another one of those clever, clever modern productions where the producer feels impelled to insert dark psychological overtones as they relate to modern living on to a fairy tale.

Having watched the split-stage opening scene with characters in revolting-looking costumes engaged in seedy relationships and rabid child abuse in water-logged cellars, I felt like throwing up. Don’t we have enough of this sordidness in real life without having our noses rubbed in it for so called entertainment? Pass.

Ian Lace

and another view from Nick Barnard

‘Damaged in body and mind’ reads the title of the brief accompanying liner-note to this DVD. Caveat emptor might equally apply. Certainly those who do not enjoy operas staged by interventionist directors can pass by on the other side of the road immediately. This is a production that is so determined to re-invent the work for modern times that it is impossible for any viewer let alone reviewer not to come away with a strong feeling either for or against the concept - indifference is not an option. "Highly acclaimed" is how the back of the DVD describes this staging whilst I know of other reviewers who have found it to be in extreme poor taste. For myself I find the 'big idea' here essentially misguided and representative of the worst kind of intellectualising of music and opera. Much more on that later; a few preliminary thoughts as a preamble. Far from all is negative.
This is a major production by a major opera house. It is strongly cast although few if any, of the singers are, as yet, major names on the international circuit. The simple reason for that is I guess that no major stars would want to put themselves through the gruelling physical and emotional demands of this version. All credit to them that they embrace it so whole-heartedly. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester play beautifully and they are caught in rich and well-balanced sound. There is quite a lot of stage noise - more about that too later but the balance between stage and pit is in the main very good - I think I caught sight of radio microphones hidden in hairlines which I assume account for the stable voice/pit balance. The performances are conducted by TomአHanus - another name unknown to me but he clearly has a good sense of the score and dramatic pacing. I do not have my score of the work to hand but from memory it sounds like a straight performance of the complete score. In musical terms it would be up against the famous and much loved versions from Charles Mackerras with Renée Fleming in the title role on Decca or my favourite - one of Vaclav Neumann's very finest recordings - featuring Gabriela Benacková and Richard Novák an imposing Water Goblin on Supraphon. Both of those performances are accompanied by the incomparable Czech Philharmonic. The singers here do not 'better' their more celebrated rivals but neither are they shamed by them. Indeed soprano Kristine Opolaďs finds a far greater range of dramatic light and shade in her singing than the more obviously golden-toned Fleming. Hence, if this were a CD release alone there would be no controversy at all and this review would be a simple discussion of the relative merits of the different versions.
The video direction of Thomas Grimm is exceptionally detailed pulling-in in tight close-up - almost voyeuristically at times - in a way that surely complements the oppressive atmosphere of this production. I watched this DVD in its standard albeit HD incarnation. Often I feel that HD's ability to resolve textures and images is too clinical - too revelatory. Again here that same technology, prowling in pore-close reveals elements of the performances - clearly intended - that would simply not read from the back of the stalls. This is such a recurring happening that I did begin to wonder how much of the staging presupposed a camera's presence - this is not a big theatre/broad gesture staging. Whether you like the details so revealed is another question - that they are intentional is clear. As ever with the camera in such close-attention certain performers are revealed as better actors than others. Opolaďs is excellent - her striking natural beauty complemented by some real detail in the ‘physicalising’ of the role. Unfortunately next to her the object of her water-nymph affections - the Prince sung solidly if not excitingly by Klaus Florian Vogt - is wooden in the best tradition of stage tenors. This impression is not helped by the fact that the prompter is heard quite clearly giving him each line. To be honest this is not such a big deal but the impact of the moment is lessened.
So far pretty much so good and certainly not bad. Until one considers the train-crash that is "the big idea". Director Martin KuŠej has found parallels between the fairy-tale story of Rusalka and the modern-day tragedy of the imprisonment of Natascha Kampusch in Vienna for eight years and the separate but equally appalling story of Josef Fritzel who locked his own daughter in their cellar for many years fathering eight children by her. Before allowing distaste to overwhelm one's critical faculty one has to admit that at a couple of points in the two/three narratives there are points of confluence. But to allow for these the rest of the storyline - let alone the specific libretto which throws up contradictions and paradoxes at every turn - whether at broad stroke or detailed point level is forced to conform to the modern/abusive conceit. Personally I do not find this shocking per se but neither is it interestingly relevant or most of all revelatory. By all means find new ways of staging 'old' stories. In fact fairy-tales, given their timeless nature, are perhaps most suited to this kind of updating but the point is that such updating needs to preserve the essential element of timelessness. What a fairy-tale reflects is the essential truths of the human condition.
Arnold Bax wrote in his autobiography 'Farewell My Youth' that he believed that all great music was a response to basic truths of love life and death. Surely the same is true of folk stories, myths, legends and fables of every culture. KuŠej, by fixing this in our time with such named and specific parallels by definition must be endowing those same characters with contemporary values, emotions and thought processes: an idea, which again is in direct conflict with the words those same characters speak and their resulting actions. A very simple and frustrating example: KuŠej has made the father-figure of The Water Goblin into the Fritzel character. At that single stroke the balance of the part as written by Dvorák and his librettist Kvapil is destroyed. Yes there is a paradox in the father/daughter relationship between the nymphs and the old Goblin as written. But as Rusalka herself says - these are elemental characters devoid of human souls or the ability to love - hence her wish for mortal form. So although sentient they are creatures of nature seeking that most basic need - to recreate. It is not the distorted humanity of a Fritzel. Surely the parallel the original team were making was a Wagnerian one with the all-powerful yet ultimately impotent Wotan overseeing his daughters the Valkyrie. There is a playfulness in both text and music that utterly belies the opening scene as staged where the nymphs good-humouredly taunt and tease the Water Goblin. Here the singers say those words but their actions are of frozen fear and horror as Goblin/Fritzel descends the ladder into their watery cellar. Huge credit to these nymphs and Rusalka for spending this entire opening sequence in drenched underwear as they paddle around a set several inches deep in water. Goblin/Fritzel then tries to force himself - in a relatively graphic fashion - on several of the nymphs before the scene where Rusalka pleads to be released from her watery 'prison' - a parallel at last. But here we hit more contradictions. Kampusch/Rusalka explains that she has seen the Prince gazing down at her. How? - she is a secret prisoner - Kampusch managed to escape and Fritzel's crimes were uncovered by suspicious neighbours. After only about two lines of pleading Goblin/Fritzel relents - after many years of implacable torture and imprisonment one assumes - saying she is free to seek the help of Mrs Fritzel/the witch Ježibaba. Ježibaba has the power which the Water Goblin palpably lacks but here Mrs Fritzel has spent the entire opera to this point on-stage over-hearing her husband's abuse below writhing and gurning in operatic excess indicating upset and fear. Janina Baechle is a dramatic mezzo-soprano but she lacks the acting finesse to make much of such ungrateful stage direction. By the time Rusalka pops up out of the dungeon - having astonishingly sung the famous hymn to the moon to a light-fitting while lying on her back in a puddle - she is instantly transformed into the semi-human all-seeing and all-powerful witch. I have been deliberately ironic with much of the preceding descriptions to counter what I perceive as pretension and pseudo-intellectual waffle. Along the way there are neat and effective touches. The moon/lamp I deride before actually looks rather beautiful and certainly as filmed creates several striking images reflecting in the water. Likewise - Rusalka takes on human form by being given a pair of high-heeled shoes. Her struggle to walk in such alien attire is a neat analogy for the broader challenge. The hunting party enter in some kind of slow motion bare-chested (why?) carrying shot-guns even though the Prince is singing off-stage that they must not shoot their arrows. Since they do nothing except creep across the stage pretending to aim at invisible targets why couldn't that have been with a bow as opposed to a gun? The climax to Act I as the Prince sings of his immediate love - Vogt rather strained over the top of the climactic phrases - ends spectacularly unromantically striding off-stage with Rusalka slung over his shoulder like the kill of the hunt. Yes I do get it that that is KuŠej's point - Rusalka is little more than another trophy for the callous Prince but again I'm not at all sure that's what Dvorák and Kvapil envisaged and at a push I'll trust the earlier creative team over the new. KuŠej labours this woman/doe/victim image returning to it with obsessive frequency. Apart from anything else it makes Rusalka into a hapless victim caught in the headlight glare of the Prince's temporary infatuation. But we know that is not the case - unworldly (quite literally) she may be, certainly naive in the ways of men but she pro-actively sought the meeting with the Prince. Her floppy inertia at the end of the act just does not strike me as dramatically logical.
And so the irritations mount. Act II opens in a bare room with Rusalka alone - she shouldn't be there at all if truth be told - together with a fish-tank and a deer strung up ready for gutting. In comes the kitchen boy miraculously transformed into a somewhat buxom girl - with a very fine voice it has to be said - for no reason that is apparent until it gives the Forester an excuse to grope her as indeed all the male characters in this production seem compelled to do to every woman they encounter. There is nothing at all in text or sub-text that makes this necessary or even desirable so I imagine its only purpose is to add to the audience's ill-ease. At the very least it projects a deeply jaundiced view of male/female relationships. My main frustration with the actions of the Forester here or the Goblin earlier is that the action undermines the value of their words. The Forester - sung by an underpowered if over-sexed Ulrich Reß - is a precursor of the same named character (but much expanded role) in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. His function is all but the same - the wise human commentator giving insight into Nature and the mysteries of the Forest. They must be at heart benevolent - aware and sympathetic to the cycles of existence. To abuse a girl clearly uncomfortable with the deed runs contrary to the very essence of the role. As an aside I personally find it little short of bizarre that we are a society that demands that parents go on child protection courses to supervise their own children at local events yet we stage just such abuse in major theatrical productions and call it Art.
As with any performance or work of art or indeed book there comes a point when the audience member/reader/viewer either engages more deeply or switches off. The opening of the second Act was my switching off moment. I found that I no longer cared about the quality of the singing or playing. I actually stopped caring about the multiple annoyances of the staging; why does the kitchen boy laboriously move chunks of bloody offal one piece at a time from one bucket to an adjacent one?. Why do the wedding guests come into a room where the doe is being gutted simply to stare emotionless at Rusalka (who still should not be there)? If it was a performance I attended in person I might well have walked out. The endless psychological analysis that one presumes went on at the numerous pre-production meetings proves simply tedious. It is better if Rusalka is absent through this Act's opening scenes - a) the fact that even when mute her presence in the court causes interest, alarm and discussion throughout the palace increases the sense of awe/fear/curiosity her character inspires. b) by having on-stage but semi-ignored by the characters there it changes the dynamic of their respect/fear of their prince's potential future wife. KuŠej has the kitchen boy sing his/her lines at Rusalka in a mocking fashion which undermines her status and reinforces her as a victim. c) on a purely practical acting level it forces Opolaďs to go through ever more variations of distressed/confused/helpless mute acting which frankly tests even her acting abilities beyond breaking point. Finally we reach the point when she should be on-stage with the Prince. Vogt was not the Prince at every performance and certainly he seems less secure in the dramatic aspects of the role. Here when singing to Rusalka his eye line is often drawn to something high in the wings stage left. It might seem petty to mention but with the camera in such close attendance it does become distracting and dilutes the emotional connection between the two characters. I began to have doubts about Opolaďs' endless angst too. Surely Rusalka realised that muteness would bring frustration, anger even fear but what we get here is wall to wall brow-furrowing unhappiness which simply does not ring true to the emotional arc the character would travel - it makes her too two-dimensional. At some point surely she would express happiness having achieved the twin-pronged goals of human form and the love of the Prince. Shouldn't, if anything, the worry and fear come later, when she realises the fickle nature of the Prince and his roving eye. This fickleness takes human form so to speak with the arrival of The Foreign Princess. Here the role is performed with terrifying voluptuousness by Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva. This is old-fashioned Eastern Bloc power-house singing which seems slightly at odds with the neurotic western concept offered here. Also, given Vogt's acting limitations this seduction scene is strangely uninvolving for all the scale of forces deployed.
I accept that my understanding of Freudian symbolism is extremely limited so the following ball scene - pausing long enough only for us to see the Prince and Foreign Princess in coitus no-way interruptus should we have been in any doubt as to their intentions as exited the stage - left me utterly bemused. For the ball the entire dancing chorus - male and female - are dressed as brides in white and each dances with a skinned doe some simulating sex with them all smearing their dresses with gore. Having collapsed with exhaustion from this orgiastic romp they then proceed to eat the does. This is descending into the realm of the gratuitously sensationalist. If you need a guide book to help you navigate the 'meaning' of any piece of performance art that piece has failed. Having watched the 'making-of' documentary after the opera it turns out this is a dream sequence - not that the symbolism is any the clearer for knowing that. For not one single second did Dvorák intend for this dance sequence to be anything more than a dance divertissement echoing the extended ballets of 19th Century French Grand Opera. The orchestra sounds excitingly powerful and impressive in this passage. However, KuŠej clearly sees it as an opportunity - let off the libretto's moderating leash - to wallow in fin-de-sičcle symbolic nonsense. I am sure that there are critics and people out their congratulating themselves for understanding what is going on here but for the vast majority this represents everything that is bad and pretentious about the Arts in general and Opera in particular. In the liner it is rightly pointed out that in and around Vienna in 1900 there was a hotbed of culture, science, psychology and the Arts. It must have been the most remarkable time to be in that remarkable city but it is quite wrong to assume that every single piece of important art created at that time in some way reflected everything from Mahlerian angst, via Freudian dream analysis to Klimt-influenced secessionist eroticism. I dread to think what KuŠej would make of The Merry Widow!
By now I have come to accept my confusion is par for the course with this production. I stopped trying to rationalise why the return of Fritzel/Goblin should require a dance double - younger with more attractively placed stains; is KuŠej trying to make this character appear more appealing to Rusalka in her troubled eyes now or does the singer simply have a bad back this night? This is the sequence musically that confirms a nagging doubt from Act I. Günther Groissböck's relatively lyrical baritone is simply not commanding enough for the role. He is also slightly troubled by pitch and length of musical line - this is one of Dvorák's most beautiful vocal passages full of poignant regret and sadness. Yet more confusion reigns as Rusalka climbs into the fish-tank. Not many operas have used a fish tank as an Act's dénouement before but at least it allows Rusalka to keep up her record of being soaked in each part of the piece; sadly in Act III she is merely damp - a great disappointment. I have to say at this point I did actually laugh. By now Rusalka has regained her voice and Opolaďs is impressive at vocalising the anger and frustration she found hard to physicalise. But somehow to make the climax of this superb passage the descent into … a fish-tank is simply comical. It's like Tosca jumping off the bottom step of the stairs or Brünnhilde's Magic Barbecue Music. I did chuckle a bit at the antics of the singing chorus too who in the best traditions of German Opera Houses are contracted to do little else but sing. So where their dancing compatriots will merrily writhe with the odd dead animal the most this solidly sensible crew will do is toy with a pastry while standing in very straight lines - it is so spectacularly at odds with all the other stage direction that it made me hoot. As ever the climax to this second Act is thrilling and Hanus drives it to a powerful and exciting conclusion. Krasteva is squally but with a huge voice which reduces the impact of Goblin/Fritzel final damning lines by vocally overwhelming them. Perhaps I'm just being too literal but I simply cannot get my head around how this character is one minute an abusive imprisoner and now the dealer of just vengeance.
The third and final Act spills onto a second disc. The extended confrontation between Rusalka and Ježibaba proves to be by far the most rewarding sequence in this staging so far. For the very simple reason that there is almost no overt directorial intervention. Baechle is able to focus on the central facet of her character's role - the vengeful human-hating witch and Opolaďs makes the most of the torment of Rusalka torn between worlds and loves. It’s an oasis of simplicity in a desert of complexity. Sadly the desert soon returns. Ježibaba descends into the watery dungeon - in Act I it seemed clear she never went there as it was Goblin/Fritzel's domain - where she meet Forester and the Kitchen Boy. They are interrupted by Goblin/Fritzel who quickly murders the Forester - surely not in the original libretto? - but is then immediately arrested by the police who luckily have found his lair. This rather undermines the impact of his last line "I'll be avenged wherever my power holds sway" - from the inside of a rather small prison cell one presumes. More dramatic absurdity follows. The following scene shows the 'traumatised' nymphs now rescued from their dungeon and in what looks like a rather spartan ward in a mental hospital. An extra point of confusion here; are they wood-nymphs - as the liner cast list calls them - or water nymphs? The staging and their obsession with bottles of water would imply the latter. They sing merrily about disporting themselves through the forest. In context this does sound rather deranged but then if every operatic character was judged for sanity on the strength of the words they uttered every institution for the insane would be bulging at the seams with operatic refugees. What is annoyingly stupid within the terms of dramatic logic this production pretends to aspire to is that having captured the 'evil' Goblin/Fritzel would the police then parade him past his recent deeply damaged captives? They do here - for the unavoidable reason that he has lines to sing. For me this is head-thumping-against-the-wall-in-frustration annoying. Concept meets logic head-on and logic goes for nothing. While I'm in head-scratching mode - the wood-nymphs earlier told Rusalka they would run from her and now they are sharing the same ward. She's lying silently on one of the bunk beds - again she should not be onstage at this point if truth be told. Fritzel/Goblin refers to her "down below your spurned sister is lamenting". So while it is OK to ignore the simple logic of this story here this is replaced by getting the nymphs to 'act' OCD: lots of obsessive hand-rubbing and so on. This strikes me as self-congratulatory attention to spurious detail at the expense of the greater narrative line. The Prince is able to penetrate to clearly lax security surrounding this ward too. I've given up worrying about the fact that when he sings "this is the place" referring to the Act I forest glade we are now in a psychiatric ward. Instead I take pleasure where I can in the beautiful playing of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester whose musicians seem determined to play with all the beauty and majesty the score the demands and this production denies. Were I ever to listen to this performance again it would be with sound only. The achingly poignant final scene between Rusalka and the Prince is unbalanced by the subtlety of Opolaďs' singing and acting in stark contrast to the all-round woodenness of Vogt. The end of the opera sees Rusalka walking upstage to a life as an asylum inmate. Given the obviously live nature of the performance it seems rather odd to cross-fade rather too swiftly to an image of water with superimposed children's laughter allowing for no applause and actually cutting away leaving the piece without the one or two beats of silence that the music demands.
I have written at length here for the simple reason that I think it is necessary to try and dismantle this nonsense masquerading as Art. I dread to think how much time and money was spent bringing this misbegotten creation to the stage. I should say that on disc 1 there is a 'making-of' documentary in which all the great and the good of the production seem to fully support and indeed enthuse about it. I think it only fair that I should point out that all of the interviewees are strongly supportive of this production. Costume Designer Heidi Hackl goes further to say that all of her most valued professional experiences have been working with this director. She does go on to say that she knows that every KuŠej production will feature blood. Strangely I find this idea less inspiring than she clearly does.
There is the germ of a valid concept here which is that the abusive Fritzel and his wife take on the mythic characters of Goblin and Witch to both control and justify their prisoner’s plight. If this was developed from a new script I could imagine it working even if one were able to put aside the ill-ease of using this storyline as entertainment. But time and time again I have to come back to the fact that the libretto used produces too many jarring inconsistencies that the basic idea cannot avoid or explain. Too often in the documentary the speaker will talk about how a particular moment - staging/costume/direction created for them a striking image or resonance. For sure that's fine and I understand that totally - but a series of striking images does not make for a coherent whole and coherence is the quality this production lacks most of all. One last curious contradiction - the synopsis in the liner follows the traditional plotline not the version as staged and is therefore all but irrelevant. As is standard with DVD there are no texts but subtitles are selectable in six different languages. As standard with such discs these are coded as 'Region 0' making them playable anywhere in the world. The opera is performed in the original Czech.
This is as controversial a production of a major piece of the repertoire as I have ever seen. Others I am sure will respond to its contemporary imagery far more than I. A Shabby Shocker.
Nick Barnard
There is a review of this production on Seen and Heard.
A Shabby Shocker.






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