Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Shocking but perceptive - Herheim Dvorak Rusalka

Stefan Herheim's  Rusalka is magical, capturing the opera's true depths and mysteries. Watch the stream from La Monnaie/De Munt and be prepared to enter the flow, for this is an engrossing approach that takes time to sink in. To Dvorák and his contemporaries, Rusalka and her sisters were not fairies at all. They were ancient nature spirits, the ghosts of women who'd died in shameful circumstances (suicide, murder, abortion, etc), forced to spend eternity seducing mortals and killing them. They inhabit dangeropus waters.. The psychological symbolism's obvious. Fairy tales weren't pretty, but moral parables.

A storm is raging in the overture, rain obliterating the lines of the cityscape. A man struggles with an umbrella, but the winds overwhelm him. A street lady offers him carnations. He's The Vodnik, not depicted as a revolting toad but as a well-dressed businessman. Already, Herheim is making a point. Eventually we'll see The Vodnik destroyed, hair long and lank, a prisoner in the world of mortals. The role is often sketched as caricature, but Herheim shows that The Vodnik had a past, too, from which he can't escape any more than Rusalka can. Notice how little Dvorák gives The Vodnik to sing. Yet he's present in nearly every scene, shadowing Rusalka, trying to warn and save her.  He's by no means an Alberich ripping off Rhinemaidens, but one of them himself. The name is generic for all male Rusalki.

Willard White is such a compelling Vodnik that it's almost as if the role was built around him. A singer and actor of his calibre would be wasted otherwise in this role, but White makes it centre  stage in every way. It's a role for which he'll always be remembered. Watch the way he moves around the other characters who cannot "see" him. It's as if he's shadowing the emotions they feel, undertanding them by moving his body in parallel to theirs. His scenes with Myrto Papatanasiu are particularly tender, but it's his shadowing of the Prince that's most touching. David Pountney's ENO Rusalka suggested unhealthy parent/child sexuality. For Herheim, the Vodnick isn't a dirty old man but a kind of noble savage, who means well but cannot escape the horror of the situation. 

Herheim's approach is strikingly perceptive. To premodern Europeans, Rusalki were part of the ecology, though feared and shunned. In the modern world, who would they be but marginalized figures outside "proper" society. Herheim's set (by Heike Scheele) shows a cityscape, vaguely modern, where details keep changing. One shopfront shows a painting of a sea monster, then displays animated rubber sex dolls, then bridal costumes. Characters take on different roles.The Rusalki themselves, in chorus, are sometimes ladies of the night, sometimes nuns, sometimes "ordinary" people and even, sometimes fairies. Jezibaba is a kind hearted street sleeper who gives the Vodnik flowers. She's not a Rusalki but inhabits the same equivocal position at the edges of society.. Usually I don't like busy stagings, but Herheim uses his symbols with purpose, so each has meaning.

This "city" changes with the light, adapting and elusive, revealing itself slowly. Towards the end, the mortal world disappears altogether. Contrasts of height and horizontals, a pillar rising to link the different worlds, and then disappearing. The whole stage area is used, and the boxes, further unsettling the perspective. Finally we're in Rusalka's world, depicted by swirling mists of green and blue, with moss hanging down from branches above. The Prince (Pavol Cernoch) makes his choice to be kissed and remain there forever. Back in the real world,  dramatic denoument. The Vodnik does something to a woman he can't do to anyone else. As she's wheeleed out by the forensic team, she's revealed as The Foreign Princess (Annalena Persson).  Herheim directs this Rusalka with almost mathematical symmetry, faithfully bringing out the wonders of Dvorák's score, where themes recur and transform. Dvorák writes alarm into staccatos that stab and wrench: one of Herheim's themes is penetration, by knife or by anatomy. Dvorák contrasst grim ostinato with lyrical passages where harps evoke moonlight, beauty and  dare I say - angels. Herheim's nuns sing gloriously but beneath their habits, they wear the fat suits the Rusalki wear when their out of their natural element.  

Rusalka becomes a meditation on womanhood, totally in keeping with Dvorák's liberated appreciation of the women in his own life. Neither Dvorák nor Herheim look down on Rusalka's profession. Seducing and killing is her job. It's only when her feelings are woken that her story becomes tragedy. Jezibaba (Renee Morloc) and the Foreign Princess are depicted as real women, too,with emotions and personality. Just as Herheim shows the depths of the Vodnik's character, we watch The Prince develop from naive sailor to mature adult, who faces his responsibilities and chooses to live a new Vodnik.

When Rusalka was staged (in a different production) at the Royal Opera House this year, Andrew Clements described it as "ugly but not radical".  I didn't like what Morabito aqnd Weiler did either (see my review here) for exactly the same reasons. No real insights at all, though it followed stage directions literally. (Herheim gives up on having the cat force the potion down Rusalka's throat. It's too hard to take it seriously.) Herheim's production may or may not pre-date Salzburg/London,  but it's infintely more perceptive. Herheim accesses meaning and shows just how remarkable this opera is, and how visionary Dvorák really was. Herheim's Rusalka is true to what the compsoer might have intended, and mysteriously beautiful, in its own way.  

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