Carved from the cautionary tales of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and Hans Christian Andersen, and written in the year Freud published On the Interpretation of Dreams, Rusalka is, by a whisker, a 20th-century opera.
Debussy had been sweating over Pelléas et Mélisande for almost seven years before Dvorak took up his pen in 1900, completing his score in a matter of months. But it never enjoyed the kudos of Pelléas. Dvorak's opera is as much about the mute beauty of the moon, the scent of pine resin and the coolness of a fresh-water pool on a warm summer night as it is about stifled sexuality or the violence of a transformation that splits a lovelorn water-nymph from tail to heart, silencing her voice. Perhaps 20th-century ears could not process a work that is deeply, if unintentionally, Freudian, benign in its Wagnerisms, melodically enchanting, sorrowful, innocent.
In her (and Dvorak's) Glyndebourne debut, director Melly Still attempts to resolve what were once seen as the multiple contradictions in Rusalka. Lit by Paule Constable, Rae Smith's smoothly curving set of teal and mustard tree trunks surrounds a dry lake with masked dancers who propel and cradle the pale sprite Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez) and her toad-like father, Vodnik (Mischa Schelomianski), and shelter the doe that the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich) obsessively pursues. Cardigans straining over their breasts, pleated skirts in perpetual rebellion, the frenzied wood nymphs are Balthus adolescents: sticking their tongues out and grasping their bosoms. Rusalka's watery sisters are suspended from wires as though in formaldehyde, specimens in a pathologist's jar, their bleached tails twitching in warning. Larissa Diadkova's Jezibaba is a cartoonishly inflated babushka, shadowed by a male chorus in identical headscarves and aprons, while the vile parade of visiting dignitaries and royalty turn the kitchen table into a 1980s catwalk for the garrulous Act II Polonaise.
It's a busy, over-populated production, less cohesive in conception or execution than Antony McDonald's Grange Park Opera Rusalka of 2008, and though the choreographed evisceration of wild cats, owls, foxes and snakes in Jezibaba's spell is amusing, the brutality of Rusalka's transformation is underplayed. This director is good with comedy and good with tragedy but insecure in moving from one to the other. Despite that, individual characterisations are strong. When Martinez sings that "to suffer is to feel alive" in her lustrous, vibrant voice (an intoxicating composite of Slavic darkness and Latin brilliance), you believe her.
Though saddled with a role that demands heroism and lyricism while typifying male stupidity, Jovanovich exudes charisma, while Schelomianski and Diadkova are shatteringly good. Alasdair Elliott is an excellent Gamekeeper, Tatiana Pavlovskaya a terrifying Foreign Princess, and Natasha Jouhl, Barbara Senator and Elodie Méchain harmonise the wood nymphs' trios cleanly and characterfully. Then there's the London Philharmonic Orchestra, all subtle horns and radiant strings. If those of us who came to opera long after David Pountney's 1983 ENO production find it hard to imagine a time when Rusalka was not accepted as one of the greatest operas, Jiri Belohlavek clearly remembers the years when it was denigrated as an exotic oddity and conducts as though calmly dissecting the long decades of prejudice. How desperately cruel and coarse high society – which Dvorak himself loathed – sounds in Act II, and how beautiful and terrible the forest is in Acts I and III. Every trembling leaf, every gleam of moonlight is caught, every painful step of the slow progression to release.
So from the gleam and quiver of a Bohemian forest to the pregnant glitter of the Mediterranean, which separates the 12th-century poet Jaufré Rudel (Roderick Williams) from Countess Clémence of Tripoli (Joan Rodgers) in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's near-static study of courtly love, L'amour de loin (2000). Saariaho's phosphorescent tuned percussion, glazed electronica, flickering woodwind, measured choral antiphons and gently melismatic medieval love-songs need no decoration, yet Daniele Finzi Pasca's English National Opera production offered little else. Where Sariaaho is still, which is often, Finzi Pasca is active: raising and lowering Jean Rabasse's exquisite Moorish screens and gilding a rather severe lily with acrobats, shadow puppeteers, video projections, aerialists, continuous lighting changes and acres of billowing silk. Clever orchestration, meticulous support from Edward Gardner and the orchestra and excellent diction from Williams and mezzo Faith Sherman (as the androgynous Pilgrim who leads Jaufré to his love and his death) ensured that every word of Amin Maalouf's libretto was audible. But the role of Clémence, like that of Simone in La passion de Simone (from 2006), is so carefully and lovingly tailored to the girlish curves of a Dawn Upshaw or Jessica Rivera that Rodgers's delicate sound was squeezed.
'Rusalka' (01273 813813) to 28 AugReuse content