Rusalka isn't a familiar opera, it's in Czech so before surtitles it was probably not viable outside of the Czech homeland. Tonight’s was only the eighth performance ever at Covent Garden. Royal Opera bill their production as a “Lyric fairytale in three acts” although at heart Antonin Dvorák’s opera is a tragedy. As a fairytale, it seems the moral is “Be careful what you wish for”, as the heroine Rusalka finds out. The score is full of glorious melodies in the style that Antonin Dvorák has made us think of as Czech national music although the underlying emotions are as much jealousy, pain, grief as lust and joy.
This production, originally staged in Salzburg, is in modern dress. Like the score, the production is full of symbolism. Act I has an amount of water nymphs showing their legs and doing erotic nymph things but it's in the best possible taste. Nymphs in modern dress as in a royal harem is no less fairytale than flowing robes in the Arthur Rackham style. Modern dress for Ježibaba the witch as an old lady didn’t add all that much to understanding and somehow looked offensive. But in much of Act I the meaning is in the music and I ended up closing my eyes and enjoying the singing and orchestra as though a tone poem and only glancing at the surtitles.
Acts II and III are staged inside a palace building. although there is a trap door to the underworld, the realm of the water goblins and wood nymphs. The modern staging worked for me and I even found myself thinking the production could be more radical still - and even wondering what Matthew Bourne would do for a production of Rusalka.
The singing and conducting and orchestra were fantastic. This is a young cast, they did it well and were received very enthusiastically. The audience had more than usual aged less than 40, they seemed keen while the older more typical Covent garden types seemed split between enthusiastic and a bit lost by it. For me, it’s great to hear an opera with a new voice that’s still overwhelmingly melodic and lyrical. I’m glad I went.
There are two black cats in the production, both familiars of Ježibaba. Act I features Mourek the cat as a dancer in a costume, who consummates the changes and curse the witch administers to Rusalka. Act III features a real four-legged cat, credited as “Girlie the cat owned by Jill Clark”. Girlie meowed on cue and then walked off stage!
Girlie the cat owned by Jill Clark.
Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House