Rusalka, Op.114 – Lyric fairy-tale in three acts to a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, based on the fairy-tales of Karel Jaromír Erben & Božena Němcová and the tale Undine by Friedrich Heinrich Carl de la Motte Fouqué [sung in Czech with English supertitles]
Rusalka – Dina Kuznetsova
Prince – Pavel Cernoch
Foreign Princess – Tatiana Pavlovskaya
Vodnik – Mischa Schelomianski
Ježibaba – Larissa Diadkova
First nymph – Anja-Nina Bahrmann
Second nymph – Victoria Yarovaya
Third nymph – Alisa Kolosova
Kitchen Girl – Elizabeth Deshong
Gamekeeper – Alasdair Elliott
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Melly Still – Director
Rae Smith – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting designer
Rick Nodine – Movement director
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 23 July, 2011
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex
Wonderful composer though he is, Dvořák’s reputation tends to rest on a handful of universally loved pieces (the ‘New World’ Symphony being one such). Yet he was prolific in most musical genres and there are many treasures away from those works that have become ‘everyday’. Of his ten operas, only Rusalka (his penultimate such work) has made it through, and then somewhat peripherally. Yet, although it has a huge hit in Rusalka’s ravishing Act One ‘Song to the Moon’, the opera (first staged in 1901) is not a one-piece wonder; rather it is inspired more or less throughout as an engrossing creation for the stage that mixes aspects of Russian-fantastical (Rimsky-Korsakov), Wagner, Italian verismo and, of course, the Slavonic song and dance, and flora and fauna, of Dvořák’s native Bohemia. One might tire a little of reading “Poor Rusalka” or her repeated “I want to die”, find the writing for harp just a little twee when signalling her appearances, or wonder if the action could be discharged even more urgently in the second and third Acts. However, such doubts are only niggles when set against the story and Dvořák’s inspired setting of it.
Rusalka, Vodnik and Ježibaba are broad terms from Slavic mythology for, respectively, water nymph, water sprite, and witch. So, a water nymph she may be, but Dina Kuznetsova makes this particular Rusalka very real, a passionate impulsive creature who wants rid of her watery shackles. Indeed she wishes to be human and to love. But she suffers greatly for it. A prince (here Pavel Cernoch, ardent of voice and dashing in demeanour) takes her fancy. Vodnik, her father, appeals to his daughter not to pursue her ambition; she will become mortal and lose her identity and rights, and her mortality, but she is determined. Ježibaba is able to send her from the water to the castle. With this transformation Rusalka is left literally speech-less (it’s distressing to see her frustrated but not able to articulate why). It is though love at first sight for Rusalka and the prince, but even on their marriage day he is lured by the visiting princess, which heaps further indignity on Rusalka. Although he is bound by laws that mean no return for Rusalka, Vodnik is keeping an eye on his daughter and curses the prince for his betrayal of her. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is also called upon for inspiration. The opera’s ending is doubly tragic and it’s impossible not to be caught up with genuine and heartfelt emotions.
Rusalka’s loving and desperate times are unerringly captured by Dina Kuznetsova. She is a marvellous actress and a fabulous singer. It is difficult to think of Rusalka, whether as sea nymph or as human – with her bitter experiences yet forgiving nature, and her ultimately being lost to two worlds – being better portrayed or better sung than by Kuznetsova. From the original production, which is available on a Glyndebourne release (see link below), Mischa Schelomianski is a commanding and resonant parent, and the dark vocalism of Larissa Diadkova is ideal for the capricious and stern witch who is here dressed as a peasant. Tatiana Pavlovskaya is the tall, sleek, vocally alluring ‘other woman’ of a princess; her presence and the prince’s attraction to her only adds to Rusalka’s emotional torture.
Melly Still’s direction is at-one with the piece and the sets and lighting are enchanting. Trees are visible and water is powerfully suggested; and the nymphs’ mermaid-like tails are charming, Rusalka’s sisters being suggested as aquatic Valkyries. Act Two’s kitchen scene, as a banquet is prepared for the wedding supper, is suitably busy and much tempting food has the viewer thinking ahead to the long-interval picnic. At such episodes Dvořák can produce a stirring wedding march; equally he can conjure magical sounds to evoke the deepest ‘forest murmurs’ and within it the underwater world of sea nymphs, or open out a dramatic throttle that even his greatest admirers might be surprised by. The music’s most intense passages tend to remind of Tchaikovsky; yet, Dvořák was always his own man, and his writing for singers and players radiates with typical élan, generosity and consummate skill.
To complete this very desirable picture, the London Philharmonic Orchestra is keenly responsive to the many delights of this score and plays magnificently for Sir Andrew Davis. He has long been a very sympathetic conductor of Dvořák’s music, and for Rusalka he ensures a pacing and contouring that shows the plot and the music in the best possible light. In short, Rusalka is a compelling and moving opera and is made special in Glyndebourne’s staging and by its superb artists.