06/10/2012 (opening night)
This is the fourth time I've seen Rusalka in the last 18 months, and as I've said before it's one of my favourite operas, so I always look forward to going.
It may be coincidence - but having now seen both of Melly Stills' opera productions in quick succession (this and The Cunning Little Vixen, both at Glyndebourne), certain directorial/design traits, or if I'm less charitable, ticks, are already becoming apparent. One is that the scenery is always drawn in rather broad strokes, and whilst superficially pleasing and arresting in overall appearance, it is ugly in most details, never quite managing to be the naive depiction of the sublime beauty and majesty of nature that it is clearly intended to be. As is always the risk with this sort of aesthetic, the whiff of amateur production (albeit with a huge budget) hangs uncomfortably over everything. There are enough ideas and visuals that it is never boring, but neither narrative focus nor emotional subtext is a strength. The results of this is that there is very little sense of story arc or growth for any of the principal roles, and one happily and attentively follows the plot without becoming emotionally engaged. The lack of psychological subtlety or detail in interactions between characters, means that there's no sense of dramatic necessity driving the plot forward and as an audience we are never required to involve ourselves in the characters' plight either.
This is also linked with the problem of having too much "stage business" going on. The opening underwater scenes contain a lot of choreographed lifting to simulate swimming motions, and the "helpers" garbed all in black that assist in this also add their own dance moves, as if they are a force of spirits under the mer-people's command. Unfortunately this seemed a little under-rehearsed, or if it wasn't, then ill-conceived, because never captured was the grace and ease with which real sea creatures move. But more problematically, it was a constant distraction from the important dramatic events that were occurring - Rusalka's rejection of her father's wishes, and her first tense meeting with Jezibaba. When finally she is freed from the water, we as viewers are still not freed from extraneous stage movement - Jezibaba brings on her own funny troupe of drag versions of herself which make it a comedy scene (fair enough), but also mean that the moment of regret that we should feel at the desperate physical and spiritual self mutilation that Rusalka has just chosen didn't register or resonate with the full horror and shock that it should have done. Leaving aside psychological tensions, even the actual removal of the tail doesn't seem that bad or even notable as an event, and Rusalka seems to recover quickly enough. I could go on, but one gets the idea.
As a bit of an aside, specific visual similarities in the two productions are also revealed on closer comparison: trees constructed from lots of pieces of square cut timbre, and animals with detachable body parts - here a doe with detachable ears and antlers - and in the case of Vixen, foxes with detachable tails. Both annoyed me and the latter began to grate after it became the entire interest in too many scenes.
I may be alone in all this criticism- the most common adjectives I hear from people describing this production is "magical" and "beautiful". (Most notably perhaps: twice the lights go right down and the scruffy reeds become a starry vista of tiny lights - this effect never fails to melt an audience, myself included, in any of the many theatre productions that have used it.) My guess though is that although 80% of the audience will enjoy the show, on reflection few will actually be that moved by it. I must stress that I don't hate it, and as I say Stills never bores at least, but it is engaging in the wrong way - that is it engages on a quite superficial level, rather than as a result of it being compelling drama or emotionally involving. And I believe that Dvorak's opera is more than capable of being both of these things.
Musical values however, are very strong.
The title role is often seen as a spinto part, and though it is true that the climaxes require significant volume and energy, careful study of the score reveals that whenever these climaxes come, the orchestation is so brilliantly clear and careful to avoid the soprano's tessitura, that a full lyric voice, with a very focussed, well produced sound, is quite capable of sounding ample in the part. I say this only because the timbre of Rusalka's instrument is so important - she is all radiant youth, innocence and beauty, and even in the moments of passion and struggle she shouldn't sound like a Brunnhilde calling her Valkyries to battle. Wobble and any hint of roughness is out - silvery legato and surging lyricism is in. In the past it was easier to find this combination in singers perhaps, but these days, the true lirico spinto is a rare phenomenon, and in this role I would always urge the importance of the timbre and expressive flexibility of the voice, over decibels.
The cast was uniformly excellent, truly brilliant for regional opera, and at the price that Glyndebourne is offering these touring tickets, amazing. Natasha Jouhl's voice has a lovely fast vibrato and sweet timbre that puts her squarely in the full lyric category, but there is enough heft to potentially endow the voice with spinto capabilities in the future. Her technique is largely excellent, and she has the potential to be a quite special singer I think. But there were issues here - the first was that in middle register occasionally very audibly crackled when she was singing loudly. This could have been slight phlegminess or signs of mild illness, but I thought it might also be the result of too much air pressure on the chords, or "pushing" too much. I asked a singer friend about a possible cause of this crackling sound and she confirmed that this may indeed have been a cause (amongst a whole host of other possibilities!). The second issue, may well be related: though Jouhl's legato is generally quite exceptional (a manifestly Good thing), again when singing loud, the ends of notes often flattened out vibrato wise and the sound became slightly screamy, which significantly marred the legato line. Again, it sounded like too much breath was escaping just before the next consonant, but it's the sort of thing that I can imagine the singer them self would find it difficult to hear without a recording of their singing. Putting too much pressure on this voice too young would be a real error and a shame, because as I say, I think it has the potential to be a very significant and exceptionally expressive instrument, whose vibrancy is such that this sort of forcing is unnecessary anyway. Interpretation wise, I wish she had lingered a little more occasionally in Rusalka's lyrical passages, but this was largely a beautiful portrayal. During these passages, I was astonished by how often she was asked to sing whilst lying or sitting, which she dealt with very well vocally, but it really limited the range of her movements and expressions, which was surely at least part of why she was difficult to get involved with as a character. Obviously this is not her fault, but another infelicity of the direction.
Almost outshining Jouhl, Tatiana Pavlovskaya made a magnificent Foreign Princess. She's possibly not the most natural actress (or perhaps just doesn't quite have the temperament for baddies), but the voice is absolutely gorgeous: a very dark, Slavic, mezzo-like timbre, with a truly superlative technique, and a seamless, silken, satiny sound at any volume or pitch. Truly outstanding. I have no idea why she isn't a bigger name - I can only imagine that she is consciously avoiding too many engagements. Glyndebourne take note: Please hire her as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin - she's absolutely stellar, vocally ideal for that role, and might do very well in a "nice girl" role. Mischa Schelomianski is a young bass baritone, and his voice is likely to grow richer and fuller with age, but already he impressed greatly as Vodnik with the evenness of his sound, already very beautiful and deep, and a the technique available to sing phrases with a true piano, not altogether common in this voice type. (I saw both in the same roles in the main festival last year, but both impressed more this time.)
The role of the prince requires a heldentenor with a lyric sound and as such is difficult to cast ideally (I was totally spoiled by Bryan Hymel's gorgeous portrayal earlier this season at the ROH), but Peter Berger does admirably, singing heroically with a pleasing bright sound and lack of strain, even if he dodges the very highest notes of the role. He doesn't quite look the part (why always clothe his large frame so unfairly in such tight shirts?), and I wasn't convinced with his portrayal of the character, who didn't have a strong enough personality, but I have already discussed this aspect of the production.
Anne Mason I thought was far too soft and nice as the witch Jezibaba, and her blank expression and lack of intensity betrayed a lack of involvement and characterisation that made her an obvious weak link. By Act III she had stepped up her game a bit, but it was almost bizarre how little effort she appeared to be making in presenting any sort of character in what should be a gift of a role in this respect. All the minor parts were very convincingly taken - the three woodnymphs (Evgenia Sotnikova, Michaela Kapustova and Alessandra Volpe) sounding youthful, joyous and lovely in their scene (so clearly a folked-up rip-off of Wagner's Rhinemaidens and at a further distance of his Valkyries!), and Robert Poulton and Eliana Pretorian were both excellent vocally as the gamekeeper and kitchen girl (usually a kitchen boy). As I say, Glyndebourne on Tour have out done themselves on rounding up such an excellent cast for this production.
Jakub Hrusa lead a clean and largely accurate reading. In the gorgeous final scene, he managed to draw a truly symphonic fullness and sense of structure from his players, but I wish this had come a little earlier as the general feel until then had been rather fragmentary and stop start, however lovely the individual moments of colour were (this is one of the most ravishing of all opera scores). The playing is uniformly good, if occasionally ragged, but one could scarcely expect better from a touring opera company.
Worth going to see for the singing, and then you can make up your own mind about the production!