Ordinary people pass by, a homeless woman lingers by the subway, a girl carrying a violin case asks for directions, the wind massacres an umbrella, a woman looks out her balcony. But while we vaguely wonder what this has to do with Rusalka (well, there’s water, and the bar is called the “Lunatic”), we begin to notice something else: the events are repeating themselves. A woman slips in a puddle again, violin girl asks for directions again, the woman goes out onto her balcony again.
It’s simultaneously enchanting and estranging. The details are meticulously crafted, but you aren’t drifting off, you’re thinking. Where’s Dvořák, where’s the pond, and didn’t I just see this same thing happen a second ago? And that’s just the first five minutes. You’re about to get a fascinating psychological thriller.
Dvořák, Rusalka. Semperoper Dresden, 5/28/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim, set design by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lichees by Reinhard Traub and Herheim. Conducted by Tomáš Netopil with Gal James (Rusalka), Zoltán Nyári (Prince), Gustáv Belácek (Water Gnome), Lisa Livingston (Foreign Princess), Tichina Vaughan (Ježibaba).The opening sequence is the dull outer life of the Water Gnome, here the central character. With the music, we enter his fantasy world. Wandering around in his pajamas, sometimes he observes the course of his own frustrating life in flashback, sometimes he is in the present, sometimes we can’t really tell what is real and what isn’t. It is all precisely attuned to the momentum of the music, following its course more than it does one of logic. The moments succeed each other in an almost revue-like associative avalanche.
In the real world, Rusalka is a silver-dressed (moon-colored) streetwalker who attempts to seduce the Water Gnome. She, in changing guises, is his Eternal Feminine, the spirit of a nonexistent ideal, an escapist fantasy he prefers to the reality of the woman on the balcony--his wife. The fairy-tale atmosphere is not an escape but a dangerous quantity of sublimation.
Rather than return to her, he ducks into the bar, where he sees his younger self teased by three girls (the nymphs). But there’s always a darker, rawer shadow haunting these memories, as indicated by the bouncing mannequins of the sex shop under his apartment who dance to the nymph’s ritornello (the bar’s stools also go up and down, and the lights flash, quite a show). Indeed, each time he attempts to reach his idealized fantasy it collapses or is unmasked as grotesque, unfulfilled lust, most explicitly indicated by the misshapen, underdressed mob of the chorus that surrounds him at times. You can dream, but it doesn’t make you innocent.
|Dresden (Tichina Vaughan as Jezibaba)|
The prostitute Rusalka makes the Water Gnome remember an old girlfriend he left for his eventual wife (or an idea of a woman and and not a real person at all?), and the sex shop becomes a bridal store (there are his apparent two versions of women right there, ha!). As Rusalka becomes a young woman in a wedding dress, a younger version of the Water Gnome appears and it is the Prince. (By now we’re in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and first we get a hippie cowboy as the Hunter singing the deer song in what I couldn’t help but wonder if was a Mulholland Drive reference. You know Herheim must love David Lynch.)
|Graz (Gal James and Gustáv Belácek, with Lisa Livingston in the back)|
|Graz (James and Belácek)|
|The ballet in Act 2 (Dresden)|
|Lisa Livingston (Graz)|
This production will be back in Dresden in late August, and if you have any chance to see it, GO! The mystifying and frustrating dearth of Stefan Herheim productions on DVD continues (the Onegin in Amsterdam in June will be filmed), but if you’re in Europe this one’s worth a trip. Besides, if you’re watching a video, no confetti will land on your head.
Don't make me choose between this Rusalka and Martin Kusej's devastating, very different Bayerische Staatsoper production, they are both fantastic.
*das Geherheimnis (n.): part of a production you don’t understand.
**herheimlich (adj.): when there’s so much stuff going on onstage you have no clue in which direction to look and maybe miss something important.
***Herheimlich maneuver (n.): Extreme method for vigorous expulsion of deeply held preconceptions, for better or worse. Caution: Excessive use of Herheimlich maneuver can result in cases of fatal incomprehensibility. (contributed by @Mirto_P on Twitter.)
Here is a video, but it honestly doesn't convey the feeling of the production at all. Thanks to Opera Cake for the upload.
Graz photos copyright by Karl and Monika Forster
Dresden photos copyright Mathias Creuzinger