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: