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Through a glass darkly,
This review is from: Dvorak: Rusalka -- Paris Opera/Conlon [DVD]  (DVD)Rusalka is a lush, late-Romantic, almost Wagnerian (particularly in its moments of brassy grandeur and use of leitmotifs) lyric opera. Here the singing and acting are nigh on perfect. Rusalka has become a signature role for Renée Fleming and what familiarity with this opera there is in the UK probably comes from the frequent repetition of her famous rendition of the "Hymn to the Moon" on Classic FM. Here it's sung with far greater urgency, intensity and huge passion at the end. Her whole performance is quite enthralling and the reverses she suffers are therefore deeply moving. But hers is far from the only exquisitely lyrical moment in the piece: I'm thinking in particular of the Prince's questioning (but lyrical) outbursts to Rusalka at the end of Act I ("Vidno divnà, presladká"/ "Divine vision, sweetest being" and "Vim, ze jsi kouzio"/"I know you're nothing but magic") and the ecstasy of the final, fatal encounter and "liebestod" and Rusalka's plea for mercy for the Prince. Sergei Larin is a fine Prince, his voice - to my ears - perfectly judged for the vicissitudes of his desires and the status of the two central women at court. His acting is compelling. The Foreign Princess is played with gloating malevolence and knowing innuendo by Eva Urbanova. Franz Hawlata is an imposing Water Goblin - and properly threatening when the time comes - and Larissa Diadkova's Jezibaba adds just the right touch of playfulness to the amorality - or worse. But she presents a surprisingly ambivalent Jezibaba (and thankfully with none of the squawlliness of the divas who really should have retired who are sometimes cast in this role).
There is not a weak voice in the lesser roles. Particularly impressive are the three highly Wagnerian wood nymphs - Michel Canniccioni, Svetlana Lifar and Nona Javakhidze - playing games with their bedding and pillows (they've just woken up) and stomping around merrily in their pond.
More questionable is the staging. This is not exactly a "lyrical fairy tale". Events take place in a non-specified recent past. At the start of Act I four women (Rusalka and the wood nymphs) are sleeping around a formal oblong pond (it should be a lake). Way above them on the ceiling is a double bed flanked by two lamps which is reflected beneath itself as if standing on a glass floor. This is what Rusalka is looking up to when she sings to the moon. When Jezibaba has cast her spell the walls pull away and the bedroom descends around Rusalka. I take this - and much subsequent imagery - to be showing that whilst Rusalka desires human love what she's going to get also includes human sex. But it also means that the Prince has gone hunting in his own palace and renders meaningless much of what is actually said before and during his first meeting with Rusalka (and that the Water Nymphs and Goblin have all come along to the Palace too). I don't think directors need to be tied to original stage directions, but I do think that variant stagings need to link credibly to the sung text. Similar problems occur throughout and possibly skew the character of central figures (why are the Water Goblin and Jezibaba so pally at the end - and what was he doing in her bedroom?! Perhaps these two are the key to unwrapping this production as an extended metaphore of the - innevitable - loss of innocence of a child (Rusalka as water nymph) as she becomes an adult (Rusalka as fiancee). They have to permit this because she has asked, but they impose limitations, punish her when she goes too far and pronounce sentence on the Prince for his abuse of Rusalka's vulnerability).
And at the end of this staging we are back in the Prince's bedroom when we should be by the lake - and the Prince doesn't die....
Does this matter? Essentially I think not (though something should have been done about the problematic hunt scene). As a whole the production is totally engrossing with some gorgeous visual imagery, clever staging (perhaps sometimes too clever) and striking dramatic moments. Throughout Act II (which takes place around the - doubled - double bed) the stage is cut in two, the right a mirror image of the left, doubled actors on the right going through identical motions as the singers on the left-hand side of the stage. Occasionally a character will appear in one of the bedrooms only, so, for example, whilst the Foreign Princes belittles Rusalka and seduces the Prince in the left-hand bedroom Rusalka watches with increasing dismay and anger from the right. The repeated mirror imagery seems to symbolise a number of dualisms/opposites: human/supernatural, love/sex, male/female, good/bad, innocence/knowing. But there can be a cross-over from one to the other. When the Foreign Princess first appears she enters the right-hand stage whilst the Prince and Rusalka are on the left. Then she and Rusalka exchange places. Perhaps the strongest visual image occurs when Rusalka is standing in the middle of the stage, the Prince and Foreign Princess in the right-hand bedroom, the Water Goblin and Jezibaba (!) in the left. The two bedrooms pull apart leaving Rusalka alone in an empty black space, a no-man's-land, with the two rooms getting further away from her.
The mirroring is carried over into the women's clothing and hair. At first the Foreign Princess and Rusalka are in identical white ball gowns with long flowing hair, later they are both dressed in outfits identical to Jezibaba's with the same wild hair.
The more I watch this the more enchanted with the staging I become. The pluses in interpretation - and sheer imagination (the quirky ballroom scene, the decking of the bed with roses (which picks up a later reference to the now-damned Rusalka's flower being the lily not the rose) - far outweigh the occasional disjunction between word and image. This is highly recommended. Traditionalists should try it too because fairytales really are more sophisticated than children think.