Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Booers and Boors - How I'd stage Rusalka

Recently, someone disliked a Bruckner performance so much  that he walked out.  Big fuss in the press. Yet when booers attack Dvořák's Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, the media go wild and give more mileage to the booers than to the opera itself. Ironic huh?  The man who walked out of Bruckner knows his Bruckner passionately (and is Ken Russell's son, a chip off the old block). For every genuine music lover, there are a thousand who boo for pleasure and the satisfaction they get from imposing themselves on others. Some even go intending to be offended. Booers are boors.

Analyze some of the comments about the ROH Rusalka. Many don't know the production, the opera, the music, the composer nor even the genre. But since when did reality get in the way of determined opinion? Booing is bluff, and says more about the booer than the booed. The fuss has given the ROH Rusalka a bigger buzz than it, or most operas,would normally attract. But in the long term, it's destructive because it breeds a body of opinion that's fundamentally anti-art. Instead of opening out horizons, as art should do, it creates an extra barrier. Don't rush to blame staging, because opera is theatre, and visuals are part of the impact. When we experience opera, wer're responding through several different filters. There is no such thing as "pure" non-interpretation. Even when you read a score, you're "interpreting" how it might sound. Singers, conductors and stage directors are interpreting what the opera means to them at that time. When you hear people talking, you listen for their point of view, whether you agree or not.

We all see, but we don't all see the same thing. Everyone can see, but not everyone can understand how and why visual images work.  It's a skill as important in opera as understanding the music. It's an art in itself, which should be cultivated.  Like all art, opera is oblique poetry that tells us more than literal fact.  So the more you know about the opera, the composer and his background, the better equipped you are to take on board what there might be. One of the problems withn the ROH Rusalka is that many people think in terms of Walt Disney. But fairy tales were moral parables, warning children about the dangers of transgression. Rusalka and the Prince both want something outside their own worlds,  and both are punished in gruesome ways.  It's a horrible story. You'd have to be pretty sick to think Rusalka is "pretty". Dvořák didn't.

It's essential to respect that he thought in different terms.  Listen to his music, with its sinister murmurs and ominous undercurrents, from which sudden sparks emerge, illuminating the darkness before falling back, defeated. Rusalka and the Prince are given difficult tessituras, from which the voices must nmake heroic leaps above the stave, figuratively leaping over barriers. Dvořák knows the characters are doomed. Those high notes are a way of expressing defiance. So, a dark shadowy colour scheme where the "white", silvery textures of the two main voices stand out better, and the powerful metaphor of the Moon shines out. Rusalka's buig number is the Song of the Moon, The Prince's The Aria of the White Doe. Shining, pale colours, gutsier shades for the other characters.

If I were staging Rusalka, I'd respect that Dvořák wasn't writing Disney. Dark staging, overhanging thickets, dense, morbid entanglements. I loved the projections of microscope slides of water in the ROH Rusalka because they showed that water is teeming with life. Bacteria is part of  the ecological system and supports the life of the waters Rusalki inhabit. To them, it's not ugly, but beautiful.  Those who sneer can't understand Rusalka and her world at all.  Indeed, the less realistic the better, because we have to make an effort to understand these alien values for themselves.

It's ludicrous to knock the ROH Rusalka for semi-nudity. Even in fairy tales, water spirits and mermaids are depicted semi-naked, which is part of their allure. They seduce the unwary. Again, respect Dvořák. Act One, Scene One and already Dvořák writes the beautiful but explicitly erotic aria "He comes here frequently". The Prince has been skinny dipping in Rusalka's lake. She's seen him swim naked and has been embracing him in the form of a wave.  He doesn't know because he can't see her, but she realizes it means she has female, mortal feelings. Imagine staging the Prince inn the nude! Audiences would go berserk. But it's in the libretto and fundamental to meaning. Maybe it should be done, in some way that doesn't compromise the singer who has to do it. He has enough on his mind with the vocal challenges.

Rusalka and the Prince come from incompatible worlds, so any staging has to show how different these worlds are. Rotating sets are often a good way of doing quick changes, but how to create contrast?  Nature vs Urban, wild vs "civilized"? Lots of potential.  Even a vaguely feminist take, given the composer's thing for adventurous women (pleasae see my review of The Jacobin). The ROH Rusalka bordello scene was as true to the text as David Pountney's Rusalka in a Victorian nursery, but neither really handle all aspects oif this bizarre story. Perhaps it's too much for us mortals to cope with? Abstraction would be an option, so audiences don't lock into specifics but listen for meaning. Dvořák is remarkably impartial.

He also shows how dangerous magic can be. It's a quick fix but fundamentally wrong. I liked the quirky ROH cat, but a friend said that it should have been more sinister. Some think the cat was raping Rusalka but I thought she was just grinding her down and pulling off her fish tail (skirt). But how to stage a scene like this? Dvořák's instructions are that the cat must be able to jump and pour the magic brew down Rusalka's throat by force. I did like the way the cat turned back into a real cat later and ran off, like normal cats do.

Lots of ideas - that's what opera is about. These days "popular" may be more important than "good" but I'll stick my meck out for informed opinion. How will new audiences ever learn if they're intimidated by bullying mobs, especially those who don't know what they're talking about?  Opinion isn't nearly as important as how it is formed. It matters to learn the opera, the composer and the background, but above all,  it's essential to keep an open mind and keep learning, so your opinions continue to develop. This same attitude applies to other things, like politics. Please see a review of the ROH Rusalka here and a review of the ROH Zambello Don Giovanni, which is one of the worst cases of anti-composer travesty. Now THAT was Regietrash. But alas, "popular", perhaps with the same audiences who think the ROH  Rusalka isn't true to Dvořák.

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