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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Myrtň Papatanasiu – Rusalka
Pavel Černoch – Prince
Annalena Persson – Foreign Princess
Willard White – Vodnik
Renée Morloc – Ježibaba
La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Ádám Fischer
Stefan Herheim (stage director)
rec. live, De Munt/La Monnaie, Brussels, March 2012
Picture Format 16:9; PCM Stereo & DTS-HD MA 5.0; Region Code 0
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2059924 [152:00 + 10:00 introductory film]

I freely admit that there were several occasions while watching this Blu-ray that I hadn’t a clue what was going on, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve said before that Stefan Herheim’s productions can have too much going on at once, and can run the danger of being too clever by half, but I found myself really rather engaged with his take on Rusalka.

Herheim’s take on the story sees it mostly unfolding inside the dark fantasies of the Water Goblin, an ordinary commuter in the pantomime that precedes the prelude but, once the music begins, his fantasy life takes over. Rusalka is a prostitute who seeks a life away from the streets in love with a real person, who is both the Prince and the Water Goblin. The Water Goblin’s wife, however, who doubles as the Foreign Princess, is none too happy about his obsession with her, and the tragic consequences enfold her too.

If that all sounds a long way from Dvořák’s fairy tale then it certainly is, but Herheim instead opens up a whole psychological landscape that I found very involving, if somewhat baffling at times. The use of doubles — Rusalka and the Princess, the Prince and the Water Goblin — raises questions about the parallels between the characters’ motivations, and the use of mirrors raises the, sometimes embarrassingly obvious, questions about why we as an audience enjoy watching scenes like this. Whether you agree with his interpretation or not, you have to admit that it’s well thought out and that Herheim pays the audience the compliment of being able to interact with his vision, making opera a two-way process between audience and performers. I’ll come back to this Blu-ray many times, not least to try and fathom out some of the multiple allusions. It’s certainly a much more rewarding experience than Otto Schenk’s recent Met Blu-ray which is undeniably beautiful but also rather dull and utterly unadventurous.

The cast are fully inside Herheim’s vision and sound great into the bargain. Myrtň Papatanasiu, who so impressed me in the Flemish Semiramide, brings sparkle and great beauty to the title role. She has such a beautiful voice and is so assured of technique that, every time I hear her, I wonder why on earth she isn’t more internationally famous; she deserves to be. Pavel Černoch brings dashing grandeur to the part of the Prince and, like Papatanasiu, is totally at home in the tessitura, acing the Wagnerian heft of the part and sounding always entirely lyrical. Both Annalena Persson and Willard White act much more than they sing due to the way Herheim amplifies their parts, but both are more than up to the challenge. Persson is rich and commanding, while White brings a touch of granite to the part that is not unwelcome. Renée Morloc is tremendous as Ježibaba, either hammy or naturalistic as Herheim demands, and sounding marvellous throughout. Ádám Fischer cooks up a storm in the pit, and the orchestra sound as though they’re having a whale of a time, as do the chorus who gamely throw themselves into whatever Herheim gives them to do. The sound and picture quality of the Blu-ray are always excellent, and the brief “Behind the Scenes” film contains some helpful comments from the creative team.

Everyone says that Rusalka is a darker fairy tale than it appears on the surface, but Herheim is one of the few directors — on film, if not on stage — who really explores that. Traditionalists will go to the Met, but anyone who fancies a challenge is urged to investigate this one.

Simon Thompson



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