Rusalka

Antonín Dvorák, libretto by Jaroslav Kvapol, translated into English by Rodney Blumer
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2010)

Production photo

Not knowing Rusalka at all (except, of course, for The Song to the Moon) and hearing that it owed much to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Fourqué's Undine, I was not sure what to expect. Knowing that it has not been - until recently at any rate - perfortmed very frequently merely added to my uncertainty.

I need not have worried. Olivia Fuch's 2003 production for Opera North, here revived with a number of the original cast, is an absolute joy. The opening was a surprise: into a frozen wasteland with what looked like giant icecubes, on one of which what seemed to be a body in a white shroud was lying, surrounding a pool centre stage, above which an old man all in white sat on a trapeze, come three girls in mini-skirts with knee-length black socks, who proceed to tease the Water Sprite, getting close to the pool and then, giggling, running away from it.

The man on the trapeze (a very lugubrious Richard Angas) turns out to be the Water Sprite and the seeming body is in fact the fish-tailed Rusalka (Giselle Allen).

The plot unfolds. She is tired of her cold, watery existence and longs for the warmth of human love, personified for her by the Prince whom she has seen bathing in the pool, and for a soul. Eventually giving way to her desires, her grandfather the Sprite sends her to the witch Jezibaba who will make her human, but at a cost, the cost of her voice. And if the Prince rejects her love, she will be forever an outcast from both worlds. She agrees and the deed is done.

Playing Jezibaba as a very human surgeon rather than a witch (with the three Wood Nymphs of the opening as her assistants) seems, to say the least, anachronistic in terms of the rest of the production but it enables Fuchs to create a quite horrifying coup de théâtre as Anne-Marie Owens takes great delight in slashing open Rusalka's tail and forcing her legs apart, disposing of what is left as surgical waste.

As expected (unless we expect the Disney Little Mermaid), it all ends in tragedy.

Giselle Allen is magnificent as Rusalka, her powerful lyrical soprano blending with the orchestra (under the baton of Oliver von Dohnányi) like another instrument in Dvorák's symphonic picture. And she acts well, too, although hampered in the first act by having to remain static for much of the time and then to crawl rather than walk and, at the end of the first and throughout the second, by not being able to make a sound.

There is a kind of smouldering delight in the trouble she is about to cause in Owen's performance: she would clearly much rather do the operation than not. Angas' rich bass voice conveys all the world weariness and depth of sadness of the character. Richard Berkeley-Steele is suitably handsome as the Prince but his transference of his affections from Rusalka to Susannah Glanville's Foreign Princess seems rather sudden, but that's the fault of the libretto rather than his.

Some light relief is afforded, in a kind of Shakespearean way, by the Huntsman (Mark Le Brocq) and the Kitchen Boy (Catherine Hopper) who gave the audience a great deal of pleasure in their scenes.

Surprisingly there is no change in set for the switch to the Palace. Designer Niki Turner makes the transition by adding a red carpet and by dressing the chorus (and the Foreign Princess) in black and red Cossack outfits, and very effective they are too. The choreography of the chorus of courtiers, by the late Claire Glaskin whose work is here recreated by Tim Claydon, gives them an almost mechanical feel, with precise movements and gestures all different yet in strict unison, which makes a nice contrast to the world of the water and the wood.

It's a long piece but it grips throughout, thanks to an excellent cast, a setting which, against the odds, works perfectly, and music which has so much to offer both to singers and to the audience. Definitely a revival to be welcomed. One hopes it will not have to wait another seven years to return to Opera North's repertoire.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan