Antonín Dvořák, Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil
Dutch National Opera
Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, Netherlands

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The Cast of Rusalka Credit: Clärchen and Matthias Baus
The Cast of Rusalka Credit: Clärchen and Matthias Baus
The Cast of Rusalka Credit: Clärchen and Matthias Baus

During the overture, a pastiche Busby Berkeley dance number is shown on film, which instantly establishes the golden era of the Hollywood musical. The chorus girls with their plumed headdresses and silken arm attachments and a chorus of sailor boys straight out of On the Town make for an instant nostalgic image.

The Dutch National Opera’s production, which premièred in June, is conducted by Joana Mallwitz and directed by Philipp Stölzl and Philipp M Krenn. Everything about it was so extraordinarily different from Antonín Dvořák’s original lyric fairy-tale that I didn’t feel I was watching the opera he had created in 1901 at all.

Rusalka is no longer a water sprite living in a beautiful fairy tale grotto. She is a prostitute working in a sleazy, violent part of 1950s New York. Her companions are not nymphs and sprites but prostitutes, pimps and criminals. She is a drug-addict and sings the opera’s most popular “Song to the Moon” whilst injecting herself with heroin.

The street has a cinema and the billboard tells us it is showing a film called The Prince and the Mermaid. Rusalka loves the movies and has a crush on the big Hollywood star who plays the Prince. She longs to live in the brightly coloured fantasy world of musical films.

Ježibaba is no longer an evil witch, but a hairdresser who runs a hair and nail parlour. It is she who, with an injection, is able to transform the dowdy unattractive Rusalka into a glamorously gowned movie star with a blonde wig and a big bosom and transfer her to a Hollywood studio stage where they are filming a musical sequel to The Prince and the Mermaid.

The transformation comes with a price. Rusalka is not allowed to speak. She has to remain silent. If she speaks, the Prince dies. If he rejects her, she is damned. It’s a no-win situation.

I much enjoyed Dvořák’s music and the singing and the acting. There are strong performances by Johanni van Oostrum as Rusalka. Pavel Černoch as the Prince, Annette Dasch as his co-film star and Raehann Bryce-Davis as Ježibaba. Oostrum is particularly powerful when Rusalka is ditched by the Prince. Her final duet with Černoch, when he begs her to kiss him and grant him peace, is deeply moving.

I much enjoyed Stölzl and Krenn’s inventive production, the contrasting sets designed by Heike Vollmer and Stölzl, the pastiche choreography by Juanjo Arqués and the costumes by Anke Winckler. I enjoyed it so much; I want to see it again.

Dutch National Opera’s Rusalka can be watched free on the OperaVision channel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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