Can a force of nature acquire a soul? This is what the water nymph Rusalka wants — to become human. As she says to her father, the water spirit Vodník, humans have souls and go to heaven when they die. But souls are full of sin, says Vodník. “… and of love,” she responds.
Dvorak’s opera Rusalka pits the powers of nature, particularly water, against human feelings and emotions. Like Ashton’s ballet Ondine, it is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s fairy tale Undine, that tells of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince. After acquiring human form, she loses her ability to speak, but at their wedding spurns his passionate advances and feels unable to compete with the fatal attraction of a foreign princess, who curses her. She abandons her prince, and though he searches for her and they are briefly reunited, his fate is sealed by his own unfaithfulness, and he dies in her arms.
It is the last but one of Dvorak’s ten operas, and the only one in the standard repertoire. The Royal Opera’s previous production in 2012, imported from Salzburg, was not revived and they have now replaced it with this one, by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee. I have seen some glorious stagings of Rusalka, but this is not one of them. The clunky costumes for the three singing water nymphs jarred with the fluidity of Rusalka’s own, and Ann Yee’s uninspired choreography seemed out of sympathy with the music. The appearance of the wise Ježibaba with her water spirits looked like amateur dramatics, and what was the point of the inflatable water toys in Act 2? The floating acrobats, representing Rusalka and Vodník, were a welcome distraction from the rather kitsch set design, though the lighting by Paule Constable was excellent.
So too was the singing, with the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian a gentle and beautifully sonorous Rusalka, and David Butt Philip a superb Prince with a strong ringing tone. As Vodník, the Russian baritone Aleksei Isaev (replacing the originally scheduled Matthew Rose) sang with authority, and Emma Bell made a very strongly voiced and glamorous foreign princess. Sarah Connolly came over well as Ježibaba, and Ross Ramgobin and Hongni Wu provided very welcome light relief as the gamekeeper and kitchen boy.
Despite the staging, this Rusalka was vocally excellent. Semyon Bychkov’s conducting provided superbly lyrical music direction after a rather ponderous start.
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