Tuesday 28 February 2012

Musically superb Dvořák Rusalka Royal Opera House

Fairy tales aren't meant to be "pretty". From the first bars of the overture, Dvořák's music for Rusalka, now at the Royal Opera House, creates the opera as a powerful, disturbing drama. Rusalka belongs to the murky depths. She forsakes her world for love, but love, for her kind, brings death. Yannick Nézet-Séguin shapes the ominous shadows in this music, so when sudden leaps up the scale burst forth, they're like sudden flashes of lightning. When they subside the gloom seems all the more tragic. When the overture advances to mock heroic grandeur, suggesting the world of the Prince, we already know there will be no happy ending.

Dvořák writes similar extremes into the vocal parts. Rusalka and the Prince inhabit a tessitura so high that tension is built into their very lines. From this, ferociously high notes explode. The high C's tear upwards as if they're trying to leap free of their background. They're too beautiful to be screams, but they're a kind of call, through which the protagonists are trying to reach out for something beyond their grasp. Narrative, embedded in music. Words are secondary. Don't follow the text, even if you don't speak Czech. Follow the way the music shapes meaning.

Camilla Nylund and Brian Hymel, singing Rusalka and the Prnice, are absoutely stunning. Technically, these roles are demanding, requiring unusual range and vocal agility. Nylund and Hymel don't compromise by shading downwards, so we hear the full intensity of extreme timbre as it cuts and carries. We listen in awe as their voices soar up and down the scale, for the range is a source of wonder. We're not dealing with the "real" world here, but a hyper-intense world of magic. Nylund and Hymel are "acting" with their voices because Dvořák gives them so much, and they give in return. We've had good singing at the Royal Opera House this year, but Nylund and Hymel lift things to another, if stranger, level, for that is the nature of this opera. Nylund has long been a specialist in unusual repertoire and Hymel has made his name as the Prince. ("It's a role that's been good to me" - please see this interview wth him). In this performance, Nylund and Hymel show that they are forces to be reckoned with.

Nylund and Hymel are not helped by the fidgety direction (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revival director Samantha Seymour). To their credit, the directors have been faithful to the score as the movements faithfully follow the constant movement in the music, but it's hard on the principal singers whose primary duty is to the music. Nontheless, there are very good moments,  like Nylund moving stiffly like a doll when she's in the castle,"out of her depth" so to speak. Sheathed in impossible stilettos, she can only take painful steps. In this scene, she can't sing, so the direction expresses her pain extremely accurately.

The problem is far less with secondary roles like The Vodnik (Alan Held) and Ježibaba (Agnes Zweirko). Held gets to crawl about, but then that's the Goblin's nature. When he leaps onto the water fountain in the castle, you feel  his desperation and relief. Zweirko's jerky nervousness fits Ježibaba's music perfectly. Even the comic cat Mourek (Claire Talbot) and dancers at the ball fit the surreal quirkiness of the magic in the plot. They inject folksy whimsy, true to Dvořák's idiom.

Other parts of the staging are more obscure. Perhaps the designs (Barbara Ehnes) are meant to poke fun at nouveau riche ideas of 19th century opulence, and the idea of bordello hints at a rusalka's sexual nature, but they don't work. The set is best when it's simply lit  by projections. The downside is that the set provokes incomprehension because there's too much to take in.  Lazy thinkers won't get past the modern costumes, especially if they don't actually know the opera (which is usually the case) so it's wiser to give them less to be confused about. Frankly, there are far worse productions around, which deliberately sabotage both music and meaning.  The non-directed Met Götterdämmerung for example, 
Francesca Zambello's atrociously illiterate Don Giovanni. This production isn't good but could be a lot worse.

I hope this Rusalka will be broadcast, as freed of the staging, it's a musical landmark. Dvořák has written the drama into the score, and here the singers are doing what's needed to bring it alive. This was also one of the Royal Opera House's finest moments. Unlike concert orchestras, opera house orchestras don't get much variety of repertoire, but when they're playing for a conductor like Nézet-Séguin, they're transformed.    
photo: Bryan Hymel and Camilla Nylund, as The Prince and Rusalka, copoyright Clive Barda, February 2012

Lots more on Dvořák on this site and on stagecreft and singing.


Wspólnota Odnowy w Duchu Świętym Dobry Pasterz said...

I do not understand why they make such scary staging of Rusalka... The one in Munich probably is even more problematic. Thanks a lot for a superb review! I will have to pay attention to Bryan Hymel (havent't heard him yet).

Doundou Tchil said...

He is not nearly as luminous as Piotr Beczala, (no one can be THAT good), but he's still only 32.

Wspólnota Odnowy w Duchu Świętym Dobry Pasterz said...

As I see he sings Don Jose. Isn't it to early for him...? Lets hope he will develop himself well:-) There are not too many good tenors...