Anton Dvořák, libretto Jaroslav Kvapil
The Royal Opera / Opus Arte

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Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka) and David Butt Philip (Prince) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Hongni Wu (Kuchtik) and Ross Ramgobin (Gamekeeper) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Act 3: Rusalka's polluted lake Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka) Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Any good fairy tale has something to say about human frailties, and any opera based on one offers a wide range of interpretations for the director. Rusalka is no exception, and in productions seen recently, I’ve seen the water spirit who dreams of becoming human, even if it means losing her voice, presented as a crippled dancer, a street walker, a road victim and a druggie who fantasises about being a Hollywood star.

Despite their differences, all these embodied a common theme, which might be summarised as "be careful what you wish for", after Rusalka’s idea of her fairy tale prince betrays her for another.

In this 2023 Covent Garden production, directed by Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami, it becomes something different, not so much a tale of perfidy but of the contrast between the purity of the natural world and pollution caused by the human one.

Environmental concerns are to the fore throughout the show, with water nymphs dressed like plants and fronds dangling in their pond made from waste material from the wardrobe department. By contrast, the unnatural antics of the prince’s wedding guests in act two include playing with plastic inflatables and splashing oil around. And in case we still have not got the message, a line in the subtitles spoken in the final act by Rusalka’s wise father Vodnik, usually translated as "our native water is polluted by human sorrow", substitutes "slime" for "sorrow".

Much of the production is effective, including an opening scene in which aerialists doubling the roles of these two twist and turn, their silver skins shining in Paule Constable’s clever lighting, even if Rusalka’s long sheath makes her look at first like a jellyfish.

Yee and Abrahami’s vision seems to suggest that the two worlds are not simply in conflict, but incompatible. Rusalka (Asmik Grigorian) retains a giant scar where the witch Ježibaba has ripped out her fishy backbone, to the horror of courtiers, but is never completely human.

She is uncomfortable from the first moments in her new existence, uncertain, lost, even bored. "There is no blood in her," comments pantry-boy Kuchtik. I feel the production goes too far in insisting that Grigorian remains impassive, neither overjoyed at finding or being reunited with her beloved prince, nor heartbroken by his death. A cold fish indeed.

Musically, however, there are no reservations, with forces superbly marshalled by conductor Semyon Bychkov in the pit, encouraging every nuance in Dvořák’s fluid score and from the rhythmical Czech libretto. The balance between pit and stage is perfect, allowing Grigorian's glorious soprano to gleam amid the shifting harmonies, with David Butt Philip equally impressive as the two-timing prince.

Aleksei Isaev exudes smooth authority as Vodnik, Sarah Connolly works magic as she manipulates Ježibaba’s twisty lines, Emma Bell brings a richness to the role of the Duchess in Cruella DeVille two-tone hairdo, while Ross Ramgobin’s gamekeeper and Hongni Wu as Kutchik are vocally distinctive and add comic relief.

The opera is performed in Czech with subtitles available in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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