Fish out of water: Martin Kušej’s nightmarish Rusalka in Munich

Dvořák: Rusalka ****

C Major Blu-ray 706504

Fairy tales usually have dark undercurrents – witches, wolves and wicked stepmothers destined to give children sleepless nights before eventually arriving at a Happily Ever After. There’s no happy ending to Rusalka, but the concept which director Martin Kušej has created is nightmarish in a way Dvořák wouldn’t have anticipated at all and will divide viewers of this 2010 production from the Bavarian State Opera. It is an opera ripe for reinterpretation; David Pountney’s Victorian nursery setting for English National Opera, a Freudian dreamscape exploring an adolescent Rusalka’s sexual awakening, works well, while Robert Carsen’s mirror imagery in Paris (with Renée Fleming in the title role) reflects the duality of Rusalka’s two worlds. Here, Kušej turns the Water Goblin into a Josef Fritzl figure, who keeps Rusalka and her sisters trapped in a waterlogged basement while subjecting them to systematic sexual abuse.

Any pastoral magic is swiftly lost in this psycho-thriller. Rusalka sings her ‘Song to the Moon’ to a globe lamp before smashing it on the flooded basement. Ježibaba here becomes the Water Goblin’s booze-raddled wife and is complicit in what’s going on beneath the floorboards. Her witch’s ‘spell’ to transform Rusalka into human form consists of drying her with a towel and putting her into a dress and high heels, on which she totters off in search of her prince. In Act II the corps de ballet (male and female) all in bridal dresses, dance with skinned deer before feasting on their entrails. The white doe the Prince has been hunting is skinned on-stage, while the Forester’s nephew, the kitchen boy, is turned into a girl as part of another abusive, incestuous relationship. Designed by Martin Zehetgruber, the split set manoeuvres up to reveal the basement horrors, while a giant alpine mural dominates the Water Goblin’s dwelling. There are further deviations from the usual events in Act III, including a suicide and a murder. In the final scene, Rusalka and her sisters are in a mental asylum, through which a handcuffed Water Goblin is led, before the prince makes his way through the forest of beds. It’s controversial stuff, yet gripping.

Kristīne Opolais (Rusalka)
© Wilfried Hösl

As disturbing as Kušej’s concept is, and however distasteful it may strike some viewers to frame an opera around the Amstetten/ Fritzl case, it is executed extremely well and the acting by all concerned is excellent. There is a very good bonus feature on the disc in which those involved in the production speak openly about the interpretation and its challenges. For Kušej, the opera is ‘about a profound desire for love’ and Rusalka’s relationship with the Water Goblin is an intense, complex one. Although an abusive father, he also protects her from a cruel outside world which rejects her. He sees Rusalka’s dilemma as being an inability to integrate with, or comprehend, an alien society in ‘the real world’, which is even more brutal than her dungeon, exploring her psychological trauma. The libretto has a number of double meanings which fit Kušej’s vision. ‘Are you sad down there, too?’ asks the Water Goblin in the opening scene, whilst groping Rusalka. The scenes with the skinning of the doe caused outrage, causing Kušej to muse that ‘it’s interesting that we’ve been showing a piece about child abuse and the whole discussion has been about a stupid doe onstage’.

Kristīne Opolais gives an outstanding performance as Rusalka, which could well be described as career-defining. She renounced her Met debut (Musetta) to step into this Munich production after the withdrawal of Nina Stemme. Vocally, she might be considered a size too small for the role, especially in her lower register, but when her top opens out, it’s quite superb – her silvery lyric spinto riding Dvorak’s orchestration with ease, when required, while able to scale it down to a beautiful pianissimo. Her ‘Song to the Moon’ is captivating and remarkably poised given the cavorting and splashing around required by her director. Dramatically, Opolais is mesmerising, her acting subtly nuanced, from the fearful girl trapped in the basement to her incomprehension at the world around her. She eventually withdraws into a fish tank in Act II, in full bridal gown, while her final scene is tremendously moving. She talks movingly about the production, and singing in Czech, in the bonus feature. Seeing her performance here only makes me regret more that I didn’t get to see her Madama Butterfly as Covent Garden last summer.

© Wilfried Hösl

Opolais is supported by a uniformly fine cast. Klaus Florian Vogt offers a lighter, sweeter Prince than those used to hearing the likes of Ben Heppner in the famous Decca audio recording, even if he’s light on vocal heft in places. His declaration of love for Rusalka at the end of Act I is impressive. He cuts a dashing figure, even in white jeans(!), and offers an affecting, sincere final scene. The Foreign Princess is sung by the Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, displaying a mighty chest register alongside a fair bit of cleavage. There are times when she needs greater ease at the top, more easily negotiated by a soprano, but the distinction between her and Rusalka, vocally, is more apparent here. Her imperious air is perfect captured.

Günther Groissböck is the Water Goblin and admits to his difficulty playing a role normally viewed as a sympathetic one, but here so very differently portrayed. A firm-voiced bass, he sings his Act II lament for his daughter with great dignity, while Opolais dances with his double, indicating the two sides to this complex figure. Janina Baechle is Ježibaba, initially appearing as much as a victim as her daughters, but also presenting her dark side. Baechle’s strong mezzo is particularly effective in the scene where she hands the distraught Rusalka a knife, instructing her to kill the prince.

Kristīne Opolais (Rusalka)
© Wilfried Hösl

Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower and Okka von der Damerau make an especially fine trio of wood nymphs, as traumatised as Rusalka, especially in the final scene where they are like fish out of water in the asylum, playing with bottled water, pouring it over themselves in an attempt to conjure up their familiar watery environment. Taking their cue from Opolais, their acting is most moving. Ulrich Reß is a decent Forester and Tara Erraught a fine Kitchen Boy (Girl), the comparison between her situation and Rusalka’s well drawn.

Tomáš Hanus and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester remind one what a gorgeous, plush score Dvořák composed, in many ways Wagnerian, yet he never forces his singers to push unduly over such dense orchestration.

The quality of sound and picture on this blu-ray is exemplary. There is applause only at the ends of Acts I and II, with no shots of the pit. There are no curtain calls at the end; we just cut to scenes of rippling water and a list of credits, which seem entirely appropriate as we reflect what we’ve just viewed.

Do you need to see this production? Absolutely. Will you like it? Next question…

Dvořák: Rusalka (C Major Blu-ray 706504)

Kristīne Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Günther Groissböck, Janina Baechle, Nadia Krasteva, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, Okka von der Damerau, Ulrich Reß, Tara Erraught; Bayerisches Staatsorchester/ Tomáš Hanus; Director: Martin Kušej 192 minutes (Opera: 156 mins/ Bonus feature: 36 mins)

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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