Gone fishing: Rusalka at the Komische Oper

Fairy tales are rich material for Regietheater stage directors, with their opportunities for symbolism, psychological exploration, nostalgia-busting, and social criticism. What is the significance of the powerless, lovelorn mermaid who just wants to be human? Barry Koskie’s Komische Oper production filters the story through the severe dresses and manners of late-Victorian mores.

This was in fact my fourth Regie Rusalka this season (it’s popular, and I really love this opera) and I have to say it was a little underwhelming compared to both Stefan Herheim and Martin Kusej’s productions (two of the best performances I have seen this season), but it is worthy staging with a unique perspective. Musically, things were a little more mixed.

And three out of four Regietheater directors agree: staging Act 3 of Rusalka is difficult.

Dvořák, Rusalka. Komische Oper Berlin, 7/14/2011. New production by Barrie Kosky conducted by Patrick Lange with Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka), Timothy Richards (Prince), Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Foreign Princess), Agnes Zwierka (Jezibaba), Dmitry Ivanshchenko (Water Gnome).

The setting is mythic and abstract, but not at all folkloric. The bare set is a proscenium arch decorated in a Baroque kind of art deco that echoes the architecture of the rest of the theater (built in 1892), and the time of the opera’s composition (1901). Rusalka actually has a mermaid’s tail for once, emerging from a trapdoor underneath the set’s one piece of furniture (a bench), and pulling herself around by her arms. In the absence of water, the physical constrictions of mermaid-dom couldn’t be any more clear. She is like the hooked fish the nymphs use to tease the Water Gnome in the introduction.

Rusalka in Dresden
dir. Stefan Herheim
 Rusalka in Munich
dir. Martin Kusej
Rusalka at the Wiener Volksoper
dir. Barbe/Doucet

The theater-within-a-theater (a trope I am tiring of) implies that all Rusalka wants to do is sing and dance in freedom. After a understatedly scary Jezibaba pulls a fish skeleton out of her back (in true Regietheater fashion, Jezibaba provides Rusalka with legs but neglects to give her a pair of pants), the Water Gnome delivers his bürgerlich warning from the second ring of the theater, the same place from which the nuns were condemned from in Dialogues of the Carmelites the other night. Then she encounters the Prince. Unsubtly, he literally enters with blood on his hands, and I mean that “literally” in the literal sense, as in he enters and smears the blood on the white walls with his hands.

But thanks to Jezibaba’s conditions, Rusalka can no longer sing, and during the wedding chorus (the ballet is cut), she finds dancing with the Prince to be a physical impossibility. The Prince dresses her up in a beautiful gown, a copy of this one by Charles Worth, but she provides little competition to the literal dragon lady of the pipe-smoking Foreign Princess. I mean this “literally” in the literal sense too, she’s got a dragon on her dress. This staging might not be the subtlest thing ever.

Rusalka is then thrown into a limbo populated by Victorian death kitsch of skulls and black robes, tormented by mysterious figures. The room seems to melt (thanks to swimming projections outlining the edges of the set). and finally giving her Prince the expected death kiss. The staging loses some momentum at this point, like several of the other Rusalkas I’ve seen recently. Dramatically, just not very much happens.

This is not a staging that aspires to grand conceptual coherence, and I’ve left a lot out–like the gruesome wiggling fish of the Act 2 opening (remote-controlled fakes, I hope, but I’m not entirely sure) and Jezibaba’s twitchy assistant. But it the Personenregie is tight and detailed and as a whole the production is overall quite effective, and I like the general tactic of maintaining the fairy tale elements but imagining them through the worldview of the opera’s own era.

It helped that Asmik Grigorian was a very strong presence in the title role (the pictures here, however, show alternate cast soprano Ina Kringelborn). Her clear but somewhat dry soprano lacks a certain melting lyricism and otherworldliness that is ideal for the title role, but she sang with endless ardor and power, and was a wonderful actress, capturing Rusalka’s desperation in a way that was deeply sympathetic and never clichéd. As the Prince, Timothy Richards acted strongly enough, but sounded cloudy and musically his stolid, legato-free declamation of the text seemed completely at odds with Dvořák’s arching phrases.

As the Foreign Princess, the imposingly-named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (you think she’s got a castle somewhere?) was as over-the-top as the staging demanded, and sang forcefully, as did Agnes Zwierko as a very loud, intimidating Jezibaba. Dmitry Ivashchenko was an excellent Water Gnome, not given much of a profile by the staging but sung with generous, warm tone.

The biggest disappointment was the scrappy playing of the orchestra, particularly the many wrong notes and entrances by the brass section. Patrick Lange conducted with rather slow tempos at some key points (both the Song to the Moon and the Water Gnome’s aria were leisurely), and the orchestra was sometimes too loud. This was a one-off performance as part of the end-of-season Festival, and it perhaps did not receive the rehearsal it required.

I’m going on opera break for a little while now, because I have rashly planned to see two big Strauss operas and two big Wagner operas in the space of about a week and a half, and I want to rest up my attention span. See you later, from Bavaria.


Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus

You may also like


  1. The theater-within-a-theater (a trope I am tiring of)

    Amen! This idea was used in Toronto this season flat out in Magic Flute, hinted at in Cenerentola and unavoidably in Ariadne. Actually the Ariadne staging was a bit of an in joke as the set accurately reproduced the back stage area of the Four Seasons Centre. If that wasn't enough it seems to be the stock device for directors at the Met. I reckon that if an idea has been used by both Bartlett Sher and Mary Zimmerman it has passed from 'mainstream' to 'utterly banal' and should be banned for a minimum of twenty years.

  2. Wow, there are even more of them, I wasn't even thinking of any of those. In certain cases I think this device can work very well, but it also seems to be a handy escape hatch for directors who don't trust the emotional depth of their material (cough Adrian Noble Alcina cough). I don't think that was the case here, and it wasn't that invasive, but I'm still not sure what it added.