This was in fact my fourth Regie Rusalka this season (it’s popular, and I really love this opera) and I have to say it was a little underwhelming compared to both Stefan Herheim and Martin Kusej’s productions (two of the best performances I have seen this season), but it is worthy staging with a unique perspective. Musically, things were a little more mixed.
And three out of four Regietheater directors agree: staging Act 3 of Rusalka is difficult.
Dvořák, Rusalka. Komische Oper Berlin, 7/14/2011. New production by Barrie Kosky conducted by Patrick Lange with Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka), Timothy Richards (Prince), Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Foreign Princess), Agnes Zwierka (Jezibaba), Dmitry Ivanshchenko (Water Gnome).The setting is mythic and abstract, but not at all folkloric. The bare set is a proscenium arch decorated in a Baroque kind of art deco that echoes the architecture of the rest of the theater (built in 1892), and the time of the opera’s composition (1901). Rusalka actually has a mermaid’s tail for once, emerging from a trapdoor underneath the set’s one piece of furniture (a bench), and pulling herself around by her arms. In the absence of water, the physical constrictions of mermaid-dom couldn’t be any more clear. She is like the hooked fish the nymphs use to tease the Water Gnome in the introduction.
Rusalka in Dresden
dir. Stefan Herheim
Rusalka in Munich
dir. Martin Kusej
Rusalka at the Wiener Volksoper
But thanks to Jezibaba’s conditions, Rusalka can no longer sing, and during the wedding chorus (the ballet is cut), she finds dancing with the Prince to be a physical impossibility. The Prince dresses her up in a beautiful gown, a copy of this one by Charles Worth, but she provides little competition to the literal dragon lady of the pipe-smoking Foreign Princess. I mean this “literally” in the literal sense too, she’s got a dragon on her dress. This staging might not be the subtlest thing ever.
This is not a staging that aspires to grand conceptual coherence, and I’ve left a lot out--like the gruesome wiggling fish of the Act 2 opening (remote-controlled fakes, I hope, but I’m not entirely sure) and Jezibaba’s twitchy assistant. But it the Personenregie is tight and detailed and as a whole the production is overall quite effective, and I like the general tactic of maintaining the fairy tale elements but imagining them through the worldview of the opera’s own era.
It helped that Asmik Grigorian was a very strong presence in the title role (the pictures here, however, show alternate cast soprano Ina Kringelborn). Her clear but somewhat dry soprano lacks a certain melting lyricism and otherworldliness that is ideal for the title role, but she sang with endless ardor and power, and was a wonderful actress, capturing Rusalka’s desperation in a way that was deeply sympathetic and never clichéd. As the Prince, Timothy Richards acted strongly enough, but sounded cloudy and musically his stolid, legato-free declamation of the text seemed completely at odds with Dvořák’s arching phrases.
As the Foreign Princess, the imposingly-named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (you think she’s got a castle somewhere?) was as over-the-top as the staging demanded, and sang forcefully, as did Agnes Zwierko as a very loud, intimidating Jezibaba. Dmitry Ivashchenko was an excellent Water Gnome, not given much of a profile by the staging but sung with generous, warm tone.
The biggest disappointment was the scrappy playing of the orchestra, particularly the many wrong notes and entrances by the brass section. Patrick Lange conducted with rather slow tempos at some key points (both the Song to the Moon and the Water Gnome’s aria were leisurely), and the orchestra was sometimes too loud. This was a one-off performance as part of the end-of-season Festival, and it perhaps did not receive the rehearsal it required.
I’m going on opera break for a little while now, because I have rashly planned to see two big Strauss operas and two big Wagner operas in the space of about a week and a half, and I want to rest up my attention span. See you later, from Bavaria.
Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus