Boris Godunov 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman
Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman

As a concept, Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij is hard to beat. Its libretto is a sequel to another opera, Boris Godunov, and its score is by a composer whose one popular opera is widely beloved (at least by me) and thus seems to promise hidden riches. Also, it is a four-act almost-grand opera in Czech which premiered in 1882, which is a) really, really late for grand opera and b) I’m guessing not many of us have seen a Czech grand opera. That’s a lot of intriguing novelty! Also, Dvořák apparently never heard Musorgsky’s opera and his musical style is, well, very different.

Thanks to Odyssey Opera in Boston, I am deprived of Czech grand opera, and Dimitrij, no longer. This was its Boston premiere, and Odyssey Opera’s concert performance in Jordan Hall last Friday was more than legit. This is a small company, and I give them a lot of credit for taking a chance and putting on a convincing performance of a totally unknown and huge opera (four hours in Czech with a big chorus and orchestra!) when they could have done another Traviata. I enjoyed this evening far more than my extreme delay in reviewing it may imply.

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Berlin Phil descends upon New York

I only made it to one of last weekend’s Berliner Philharmoniker concerts. It was the first one, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The composers Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg
and Elgar and aren’t often associated with each other, but they
featured together in the first of three concerts in Carnegie Hall with
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The works on the program,
it turned out, all dated from the 1890s and all were program music. But
Rattle and the orchestra, while technically flawless, only seemed to
connect with the material at some points.

Read the rest of the review here. I’ve usually been a big Rattle fan. I went to college in Philadelphia, where he visited the orchestra every other year and we never missed a program. But this one left me in the end less thrilled, much in the same way I found his Salome last spring in Salzburg–flawless but chilly, in a repertoire in which coldness does no favors. But the Enigma Variations, a piece I’ve never been crazy about, was pretty spectacular. I do like the Dvořák too, which is never sugary and always subtle.

Those things could not be said of Jack Sullivan’s program notes. In the note to Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel, he perpetuates the dangerous cliché that the Germanic composers of this period wrote in a generic mainstream style driven by intellectual processes and education, while the “nationalist” composer such as Dvořák (or Chopin, or Glinka, or Liszt) is more “authentic,” unstudied, and instinctual. Sullivan’s Dvořák communes with the Czech spirit at a primordial level, but to get this he distorts a number of facts. While Czech folklore was very important to Dvořák, this did not preclude him being literate and cosmopolitan as well–just like most composers of any nationality.

He describes The Golden Spinning Wheel as one of four “orchestral ballades” that Dvořák “knocked off” in 1896, which he describes as based on a “folktale” and “fairy tale.” “Knocked off” is a condescending way of putting it–would we ever say that Brahms knocked off something? And the second half simply isn’t true. The Golden Spinning Wheel is based on a poem by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Its sources are folkloric to be sure, but Dvořák was working from a literary source, not transcribing the spirit of a fairytale from his grandma.

Sullivan describes the form of the piece thusly:

Dvořák often used classical sonata form in his symphonic works, but the structure of The Golden Spinning-Wheel, based directly on the verbal rhythms of folklorist Karel Jaromir [sic] Erben’s text, is as far from Viennese classicism as possible, giving the piece a liberating unpredictability that was later celebrated and built upon by Leoš Janáček.

Oy. So here we have the first mention of Erben, whose responsibility for the source material is never further clarified. Then we have a description of something that sounds like a proto-Janáčekian speech-melody technique. I don’t know this piece enough to say if it’s present or not, but even if it is, “verbal rhythms” work on the local, phrase level, which has nothing to do with whether the piece is in sonata form or not.

But most seriously, what is this form that is “as far from Viennese classicism as possible”? It’s… a rondo. An odd rondo, with a lot of little ternary forms in the episodes, but a recognizable rondo nonetheless. Rondos are one of the foremost Viennese classical forms. Of course, many folk forms also contain similar forms with a recurring section. The stark binary between Czech and not-Czech music just doesn’t exist. Prague is not, after all, very far from Vienna.

Updated to Add: The program note for the Enigma Variations identifies Variation VI (Ysobel) as being a violin solo. It’s a viola.

(By the way, I often write program notes myself. If you need some, call me.)

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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

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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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Rusalka at the Volksoper: Green party

Comparing the Volksoper to the Bayerische Staatsoper is unfair to both, but when you see the same opera at both within three days, it’s unavoidable.  André Barbe and Renaud Doucet’s new Volksoper Rusalka is an environmentally conscious meditation with a much softer touch than Martin Kušej’s brutal Munich staging.  When two of the three Viennese nymphs missed their first entrance, I inwardly groaned, and when the Water Goblin started handing out lollypops, I wanted to scream “DON’T TAKE CANDY FROM THE NICE MAN, KIDS!!!!”  But this is a production fit for the whole family, and a nice evening out all told.

There is a point at which a wood nymph douses herself with gasoline, though.  Good to know that I’m still in Europe!

Now updated with more photos.

Dvořák, Rusalka.  Volksoper Wien, 28/10/10.  New production in German by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet with sets and costumes by the same, lights by Guy Simard, choreography by Doucet.  Conducted by Henrik Nánási with Kristiane Kaiser (Rusalka), Aleš Briscein (The Prince), Mischa Schelomianski (Water Goblin), Victoria Safronova (The Foreign Princess), Dubravka Musovic (Jezibaba).

This entry comes to you from the very crowded standing room line for Juan Diego’s Nemorino. I will add more pictures when I have a better internet connection.

The press has described this production as Alice in Wonderland, and indeed it opens with Rusalka climbing up from a little girl’s bedroom into a magical forest.  But if there’s a real metatext here it’s Wall-E: the story-book forest is beautiful, but it’s also clogged with trash, destroyed by the humans Rusalka foolishly wants to join.  The wood nymphs cavort merrily anyways, though the overall effect of their choreography is reminiscent of a children’s musical, meaning that it is sweet but it is trying very hard to be sweet and I could do with fewer cartwheels. 

Rusalka is an ethereal, blond woman in white who wanders aimlessly.  Fuzzy orange Snuffleupagus-like Jezibaba can make the scattered trash bags dance (their choreography resembles that of the nymphs), which, well, I’m not sure what it symbolizes.  After transforming Rusalka by way of feeding her some somewhat moony LED lights, she transforms herself into the Foreign Princess (though the roles are sung by two different singers).  So Jezibaba tests the Prince in Act 2, and he fails.

The Prince lives among a bevy of grotesquely rotund humans who waddle around, gorge themselves on the wedding reception food, wear designer-logo clothes, leave their trash lying around, etc.  It seems that the Prince, the only vaguely attractive figure of the lot, is trying to get back to the land, hence Rusalka’s appeal.  But he sails his shiny boat over the water instead of jumping into it. 

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s more setup than narrative and the generic and minimal Personenregie doesn’t do much to dramatize the story or give the characters depth.  I tried to come up with something to say about Act 3 above, but the production doesn’t really seem to, and the ending lacks emotional impact.  The design has a few issues, some probably a matter of budget (Rusalka’s dreadful wig) but others just unfortunate (send those wood nymphs back to Stefan Herheim’s Lohengrin).

But there are some nice visual touches.  The Falstaffian Gamekeeper (complete with antlers), the bicycle-riding Man in the Moon, the Kitchen Boy wearing a pot on his head, and the first appearance of the fat hunters are all delights (though I couldn’t locate any of them except the fat hunters in the production photos). In the production’s darkest moment, one of the wood nymphs seemingly unknowingly picks up a stray can of gasoline and douses herself, not that we see her go up in flames. Unfortunately the much-vaunted dancing trash bags are over-used.  And both of these things contribute more to the general concept than they do to telling the story.

Musically things were solid.  Kristiane Kaiser is a really lovely Rusalka with a creamy, remarkably even soprano fit for both the dramatic and gentle parts of the role.  Sometimes she was overly studious in articulating the clumsy German translation, which came across with admirable clarity but interfered with the musical line. (You try singing “Zwar pflegst du Nixen des Nachts zu erschrecken, doch heilst du Menschenkummer schon mit Blicken” smoothly.)  She was all delicate sensitivity and lightness onstage, not much of a journey in acting terms but sympathetic.

Aleš Briscein was a stiff Prince with a pleasant tenor voice without particular lyric beauty or power, and an unfortunate tendency towards cliché tenor hand gestures.  Dubravka Musovic was an excellent Jezibaba (redundantly credited in the program as “Die Hexe Jezibaba”…. guys, “Jezibaba” just means “Die Hexe” [Witch] in Czech) with the kind of Slavic mezzo that can peel paint but you like it anyways.  Victoria Safronova was a very loud Foreign Princess with far too much vibrato to settle on any pitch, and incomprehensible German.  Mischa Schelomianski was a woolly but amiable Water Goblin.  One of the nymphs was out of service and being sung offstage by someone else, which made their trios somewhat rocky, and was probably the cause of that exceptionally bumpy start.  Henrik Nánási conducted with flowing tempos and excellent details, and the Volksoper orchestra sounded good despite some wayward brass entrances.

Kušej is the equivalent of operatic absinthe: probably inadvisable in large quantities.  Barbe and Doucet’s production is accessible, enjoyable, and reasonably creative.  This might not sound like a ringing endorsement–truth is, Kušej is also lots more interesting to write about–but sometimes you just want your operas without dissection, right?

There are many remaining performances, some with an alternate cast.

Photos copyright Dimo Dimov/Volksoper.

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Rusalka in Munich: Not part of this world

Martin Kušej’s new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka is not a happily tragic fairy tale.  Rusalka’s lake is a dark, damp cellar, where she is imprisoned with her sisters by her abusive father.  But once she finally escapes, she is thrown mute and alone into an equally brutal world where she is utterly unequipped to survive, and he increasingly looks like a protector.  It is a deeply unsettling and, for the most part, enormously effective production.

Dvořák, Rusalka, Bayerische Staatsoper, 10/26/2010.  New production by Martin Kušej, sets by Martin Zehetgruber, costumes by Heidi Hackl, lights by Reinhard Traub.  Conducted by Tomáš Hanus with Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), Klaus Florian Vogt (The Prince), Günther Groissböck (The Water Goblin), Nadia Krasteva (The Foreign Princess), Janina Baechle (The Witch).

We open to see a giant photographic cyclorama of an idealized alpine vista, flat and fake.  In front of this is are the accoutrements of a run-down living room and the house’s occupants, a man in track pants and a bath robe and an indifferently caftaned woman with long curly hair.  Wait, what?  Then this room rises to reveal a wet, dark, filthy cellar below, populated by a group of imprisoned girls of various ages.

Yes, the concept is based on the Fritzl and Kampusch cases.  The light on the water of the opening is the man above (for he is the Water Goblin, their father) shining a flashlight down through a trapdoor from the room above, before he climbs a ladder into the cellar to abuse them.  Rusalka’s moon is a bare neon globe; how she has spotted the Prince is left unsolved.  She begs her mother–Jezibaba–for freedom, but when she finally gets it she’s given a pair of Dorothy-like red heels that she can’t even walk in, deprived not only of her voice but also her grace.  Unsurprisingly, she attaches herself to the first person who happens upon her, the Prince, even if he meets her while pointing a gun at her.

The second act opens with the Gamekeeper systematically dismembering a deer with occasional breaks to grope his niece, the Kitchen, um, Girl (usually a pants role).  So, you know, not that much of an improvement for Rusalka.  She’s tottering around mute and lost and utterly helpless, confronted by wedding guests in tacky Alpine Tracht that recall nothing so much as the mural of Act 1.  Rusalka discovers the Prince enjoying a pre-marriage bump with the Foreign Princess against a wall and runs back to her abuser/guardian.

For the first two acts, it’s a brutal but rather brilliant exploration of Rusalka’s battered outsider status, and her twisted relationship with her father.  But like in many of these sorts of productions, in Act 3 things get a little too complicated.  The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Girl corner the Water Goblin, who unexpectedly stabs the Gamekeeper to death, but it seems that this was some kind of sting operation as police officers jump out to catch the Water Goblin (their timing is a little off).  The daughters are all put into a mental institution that, while a plausible consequence, in the plot resembles a deadly serious version of the jail in Act 3 of Fledermaus: everyone keeps inexplicably showing up there.  The Prince reveals unexpected and implausible depths of guilt and kills himself, Rusalka is left broken and alone with her similarly insane sisters.

The visual vocabulary of this production could be a winner in any game of Regie bingo: the icky father figure in a bathrobe toting Aldi bags, the Prince’s wallpaper almost matching that of the opera house, the dead animals (more dead deers are wielded by a crowd of brides in a horrific wedding ballet), the deflation of Alpine kitsch.  (I know by now that as soon as anyone steps onto a German opera stage wearing lederhosen that they’re about to do something horrific.)

But for all its occasional reliance on cliche and its unrelenting darkness, I loved this reinterpretation of Rusalka’s character.  The nymph is usually a spirit of longing, not a character but a collection of romantic desires in passive feminine form.  Kušej is usually described as a total misanthrope (his productions of Don Giovanni and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk bear this out), but I thought he gave her, for once, a revelatory humanity.  This soul adrift is not pretty in her yearning, she’s a woman who has been destroyed by total alienation and abuse and has only instinct left.  You can read this (and I would like to) as an implicit critique of the tradition that has given us all these beautifully longing spirits in the first place, and as a challenge to an art form that still often stages female objectification without thinking twice.  Like many operatic characters, Rusalka cannot control her own fate or even or own body, but for once we can’t miss the inhumanity of that loss.

Kristine Opolais had a theatrical triumph in the title role, acting with raw commitment and an utter lack of diva vanity, stumbling and trembling the entire evening.  Her voice is also raw and pushed, and her senses of rhythm and pitch sometimes approximate.  But while this is not a lusciously sung Rusalka, it’s a heartbreakingly vivid one.  Less earthy was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Prince, sung with exquisitely crystalline tone that effortlessly fills the theater.  For all its beauty it can be a somewhat bloodless, unvarying sound, though he acts with a passion his voice can’t really command.  His unearthly Prince and Opolais’s tough Rusalka were a fascinating reversal of the usual sounds in these roles.

All the musical values were top-notch and Tomáš Hanus conducted a beautifully contained performance with great lyricism and transparency.  He never lapsed into sappy sentimentality, but found the kind of romantic sweep you need in the big moments.  And the orchestra was excellent.  But this was a performance more memorable for its production than its music.  The Personenregie was detailed and across-the-board convincing to a rare degree down to the small roles (particularly the haunting nymphs, who also all sang wonderfully).  Günther Groissbock sang the Water Goblin with a medium-sized, very secure bass, and gave a creepy but, even creepier, never overacted portrayal, defined by his extremely ambivalent relationship with Rusalka.  Nadia Krasteva was a glamorous Foreign Princess and sang well, though it is odd to hear a mezzo in this role.  Janina Baechel’s Jezibaba had no magic, but was another fascinatingly conflicted, ambiguous character, and sung with authority and precision.

There’s a place for fairy tales, but to see something that dismantles them so thoroughly and devastatingly is not to be missed.  Leave the kids at home, though.

N.B.: I had a restricted-view seat for the first two acts (found something slightly better for Act III) and missed some of the things happening on stage left.  This production is being filmed for DVD, there were cameras all over the place, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again with more complete visuals.

And I saw someone who looked like Katharina Wagner, but I’m not sure if it was her or not.

Next: What’s this mermaid opera I’m seeing tonight?  Oh, yeah, Rusalka again!  This time at the Volksoper.
Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper except the two below.
Edited because diacriticals are critical.
My most successful bows photo yet:

Nationaltheater under a very Bavarian sky:

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Andris Nelsons and the Philharmoniker: Old orchestra in a New World

Watching Andris Nelsons conduct is great fun.  His hands flutter wildly, he crouches, he stands on his toes.  He looks like he is having a much better time than anyone in the Wiener Philharmoniker ever seems to be.  But it’s a measure of the musical success of his Philharmoniker debut that I did not regret having gotten up early on a Sunday morning for a trombone concerto.  Much less for his absolutely spectacular Dvořák 9.

Wiener Philharmoniker 3. Soirée, Andris Nelsons, conductor; Dietmar Küblböck, trombone.  Musikverein, 24/10/10.  Mozart, Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319; Tomasi, Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra; Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, “From the New World.”

These 11:00 Sunday morning concerts are a common thing in Austria.  It’s a Catholic country, but I suspect there’s a lot of Kunstreligion in these parts.  Usually around this time I’m having a second cup of coffee and thinking about doing laundry, but I’m glad I dragged myself out of the house for this one. 

Andris Nelsons had already had his second cup of coffee, if not his third and his fourth as well.  The Latvian wunderkind is a disciple of the Faster is Better School of Conducting Prodigies (see also Nézet-Séguin, Yannick; Harding, Daniel), but there was a lot else going on here too.  The program began with Mozart’s Symphony K. 319.  Mozart with the Philharmoniker is inevitably a plush experience.  This is not my personal preference, but Nelsons’s light and fluid approach made it an enjoyably frothy and brilliant performance in the fast movements and a clear, delicate one in the canonic entries of the slow movement.  He seemed to want a more rustic character in the minuet than the orchestra was giving him, but in the last movement gathered speed like a 16-year old given a sportscar. 

Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) was a new name to me, he was a mid-century French composer of exceptionally tonal music.  His 1956 trombone concerto sounds like the bastard child of Gershwin and Prokofiev as raised by Poulenc.  It opens with a series of recitative-like confrontations between the trombone and orchestra, but then settles into a more relaxed and melodic groove, which it more or less stays in for the rest of the three-movement piece.  There’s a lot of jazzy stuff, there’s some twinkly and mechanical-sounding wind writing, there are passages that sound like trombone outtakes from An American in Paris.  Nelsons conducted it with as much rhythmic verve as he could locate.  It’s an enjoyable piece and Dietmar Küblböck played it with mellow command, but I don’t feel inspired to locate the rest of the Tomasi oeuvre.

The highlight of the program was the ever-popular Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” of Antonin Dvořák.  Nelsons conducted it with Brahmsian attention to rhythmic detail and texture, bringing out unexpected inner voices and harmonies that are usually lost behind the big tunes.  Except for the trio of the Scherzo, nothing sounded folksy at all.  As an orchestral musician I have been around the Dvořák 9 block and heard things I have never heard before: the first movement development emerged as a developing variation between strings and brass, a trilling string accompaniment figure in the second movement foreshadowed the birds near the end of the movement.  The last movement was, yes, very fast, but also Nelsons finally seemed to get a sharp-edged violence from the orchestra that never turned heavy.  Great all around.

Nelsons and the Philharmoniker repeat this program in the Musikverein on Tuesday and on tour in Japan next week.  I, on the other hand, will be in Bavaria on Tuesday to see Rusalka and can only hope that soprano Kristine Opolais proves as adept a Dvořák interpreter as her boyfriend is.

Photos: Royal Academy of Music/Telegraph.  As you probably guessed from the empty seats and lady violinist in the first row, that photo is not of the Philharmoniker.

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