Stefan Herheim’s coasts of Bohemia

Stefan Herheim’s production of Rusalka, just finishing its run at the Semperoper Dresden, was one of the best performances I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It begins not with the score but gently falling rain. We’re on a European street, with several houses, the entrance to a subway stop, a tree, a lamppost, a church, some closed-up shops, and a bar.

Ordinary people pass by, a homeless woman lingers by the subway, a girl carrying a violin case asks for directions, the wind massacres an umbrella, a woman looks out her balcony. But while we vaguely wonder what this has to do with Rusalka (well, there’s water, and the bar is called the “Lunatic”), we begin to notice something else: the events are repeating themselves. A woman slips in a puddle again, violin girl asks for directions again, the woman goes out onto her balcony again.

It’s simultaneously enchanting and estranging. The details are meticulously crafted, but you aren’t drifting off, you’re thinking. Where’s Dvořák, where’s the pond, and didn’t I just see this same thing happen a second ago? And that’s just the first five minutes. You’re about to get a fascinating psychological thriller.

Dvořák, Rusalka. Semperoper Dresden, 5/28/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim, set design by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lichees by Reinhard Traub and Herheim. Conducted by Tomáš Netopil with Gal James (Rusalka), Zoltán Nyári (Prince), Gustáv Belácek (Water Gnome), Lisa Livingston (Foreign Princess), Tichina Vaughan (Ježibaba).

The opening sequence is the dull outer life of the Water Gnome, here the central character. With the music, we enter his fantasy world. Wandering around in his pajamas, sometimes he observes the course of his own frustrating life in flashback, sometimes he is in the present, sometimes we can’t really tell what is real and what isn’t. It is all precisely attuned to the momentum of the music, following its course more than it does one of logic. The moments succeed each other in an almost revue-like associative avalanche.

In the real world, Rusalka is a silver-dressed (moon-colored) streetwalker who attempts to seduce the Water Gnome. She, in changing guises, is his Eternal Feminine, the spirit of a nonexistent ideal, an escapist fantasy he prefers to the reality of the woman on the balcony–his wife. The fairy-tale atmosphere is not an escape but a dangerous quantity of sublimation.

Rather than return to her, he ducks into the bar, where he sees his younger self teased by three girls (the nymphs). But there’s always a darker, rawer shadow haunting these memories, as indicated by the bouncing mannequins of the sex shop under his apartment who dance to the nymph’s ritornello (the bar’s stools also go up and down, and the lights flash, quite a show). Indeed, each time he attempts to reach his idealized fantasy it collapses or is unmasked as grotesque, unfulfilled lust, most explicitly indicated by the misshapen, underdressed mob of the chorus that surrounds him at times. You can dream, but it doesn’t make you innocent.

Dresden (Tichina Vaughan as Jezibaba)

Sometimes the happenings are kind of familiar: Rusalka, sitting on top of one of the cylindrical poster-mounting things European cities have, even spectacularly gets a mermaid’s tail floating in water. She sings her Song to the Moon to illuminated satellite dishes and begs the Water Gnome to free her. (Ježibaba is the homeless woman, and she gets Rusalka ingress to the Waterman’s apartment, where she and Ježibaba and the wife hang out. What this meant was a little mysterious to me* but I love some sisterly affection. The nature of Rusalka’s transformation was not on the clear side of things. I’ll get to that.)

The prostitute Rusalka makes the Water Gnome remember an old girlfriend he left for his eventual wife (or an idea of a woman and and not a real person at all?), and the sex shop becomes a bridal store (there are his apparent two versions of women right there, ha!). As Rusalka becomes a young woman in a wedding dress, a younger version of the Water Gnome appears and it is the Prince. (By now we’re in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and first we get a hippie cowboy as the Hunter singing the deer song in what I couldn’t help but wonder if was a Mulholland Drive reference. You know Herheim must love David Lynch.)

Graz (Gal James and Gustáv Belácek, with Lisa Livingston in the back)

In Act 2, we see Rusalka and the Foreign Princess (who has been the Water Gnome’s wife all along) as identically-dressed doubles. The ideal of Rusalka is rapidly replaced by the reality of the Foreign Princess. Then the Prince and the Foreign Princess go to the opera, sitting in one of the proscenium boxes and, judging by their programs, seeing Rusalka, the fantasy. At the upstage end of the stage’s street, a mirror has been lingering all evening, reminding us that we are watching ourselves, now it expands to show the entire house as we watch the spectacular show of the Water Gnome’s sea-themed carnival. The Foreign Princess then tries to drag her husband out of this world. But by now Rusalka has descended in a glittery dress on an illuminated moon, the sea creatures have marauded through the auditorium, Herheim has fired a confetti canon over the Parkett, and the Water Gnome’s problem is our own: we don’t want to leave this spectacle either.

Graz (James and Belácek)

In Act 3, we see the tragic effects of the Water Gnome’s inability to confront the real world. Still haunted by the hooker with a heart of gold but stuck watching TV at home (apparently they got a new one since they spectacularly threw a TV off their balcony to much shattering and fire in Act 1), he murders his wife. Rusalka is sadly left to identify her, and he is arrested. He only returns to smash the watery cylinder that enclosed Rusalka, trying to leave the fantasies that ultimately deceived him.

The ballet in Act 2 (Dresden)

The most striking thing about the production is how through all the complexity it just works, with amazingly detailed acting, the stagecraft of Heike Scheele’s set (the shops on the street transforming, the nymphs floating Rhinemaiden-like) in a way that is dazzling but never gratuitously showy because it works in such close concert with the score. Sometimes, however, it is all a bit much to watch.** It also works with Herheim’s story, which admittedly has little to do with the customary Rusalka at most points. The biggest loss is the story of Rusalka herself, who doesn’t get much in the way of an independent existence or sympathy as a character. But Herheim’s idea–that the Rusalka of the opera is not a woman but a fantasy–is brilliantly realized.***

Lisa Livingston (Graz)

At this May performance the excellent cast was mixed between that of the opera’s December premiere in Dresden and artists from an earlier incarnation in Graz. The majority were from Graz, so I’ve mostly used Graz’s pictures here (sorry, there are some multiple Princes and Ježibabas, but I ID’d the locations for copyright, the top photo is Dresden). Gal James was pure vocal loveliness as Rusalka, with a natural, sweet and even lyric sound and powerful acting between her multiple incarnations. Vocally, she may be my favorite Rusalka yet. Zoltán Nyári has a less heroic voice than you usually hear as the Prince, but his passionate delivery and energy made up for a certain lack of heft. Gustáv Belácek as the Water Gnome was a fascinating protagonist through the production’s heavy demands, and sung with warm sound and ease. Tichina Vaughan was an excellent, somewhat steely but loud Ježibaba, also acted with wonderful comic timing. Lisa Livingston, substituting for Stephanie Friede as the Foreign Princess, suffered from a lot of vibrato but was loud and a strong actress. Tomáš Netopil conducted the excellent orchestra in a beautifully shaped lyrical performance and had quick reflexes with some singers who showed rhythmic creativity.

This production will be back in Dresden in late August, and if you have any chance to see it, GO! The mystifying and frustrating dearth of Stefan Herheim productions on DVD continues (the Onegin in Amsterdam in June will be filmed), but if you’re in Europe this one’s worth a trip. Besides, if you’re watching a video, no confetti will land on your head.

Don’t make me choose between this Rusalka and Martin Kusej’s devastating, very different Bayerische Staatsoper production, they are both fantastic.

*das Geherheimnis (n.): part of a production you don’t understand.
**herheimlich (adj.): when there’s so much stuff going on onstage you have no clue in which direction to look and maybe miss something important.
***Herheimlich maneuver (n.): Extreme method for vigorous expulsion of deeply held preconceptions, for better or worse. Caution: Excessive use of Herheimlich maneuver can result in cases of fatal incomprehensibility. (contributed by @Mirto_P on Twitter.)

Here is a video, but it honestly doesn’t convey the feeling of the production at all. Thanks to Opera Cake for the upload.

Graz photos copyright by Karl and Monika Forster
Dresden photos copyright Mathias Creuzinger

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  1. It's not, I think y'all are getting the Wieler/Morabito one. Don't worry, they will still be baying for the director's blood, I think that's the one with a giant cat. I'd be very depressed if audiences were so hostile as to not even consider Herheim because this show is SO GOOD.

    But hey, Met: I recommend importing Herheim, OK? What about with Netrebko, Beczala, and Pape? The Schenk production with the Saran Wrap pool is just sad.

  2. Interesting. Thats a lot of heavz Ruslkaing. Also, while I understand the imperative of getting back for the Rigoletto I'm surprised (indeed, amazed and schocked) that you didn't, alredy being in Dresden, stay to take advantage of yet another unique and precious opportunity to see Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth. I suppose, though, that with your trip to Bayereuth and all (I think you mentioned you were going) you wanted to preserve the purity of the experience for that occasion.

  3. I hope you love it, Brainpack! I think you will.

    Marcillac, I have one more to go, the Kosky production at the KOB this summer. I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't one of my favorite operas, but it's a *really* interesting journey.

    It is too bad Nylund is so overexposed in Vienna (though maybe only I think this and she's managed to reach Liebling status by now), because she's pretty decent, just not that exciting. And I actually would really liked to have seen the Tannhäuser because it is a Konwitschny production; I imagine Gould would be a credible Tannhäuser, too. Just seeing Meistersinger in Bayreuth, though.