Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017
Tomáš Hanus, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Krassimira Stoyanova, Dmytro Popov, Elena Zhidkova, Jongmin Park, Monika Bohinec, Stephanie Houtzeel, Gabriel Bermúdez, Ileana Tonca, Ulrike Helzel, Margaret Plummer, Rafael Fingerlos
Staatsoper Live - 25th October 2017
Initially it doesn't look like there's much originality in Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of Rusalka. It's all very much within the director's fairy-tale world, the frozen ice-palace worlds where his Pelléas et Mélisande takes place and Der Rosenkavalier (which is indeed a kind of fairy-tale. In the case of Rusalka, which really is a fairy-tale, it hardly seems the best way to tap into the darker undercurrents that run through the work, but they do seem to rise to the surface as the production progresses.
At the very least, the Glittenberg's set and costume designs are lovely to look at and they do seem to strike a good balance between abstract stylisation and the idea of a more traditional fairy-tale world. There are two levels representing the water goblin's world and the world of the humans, but the division isn't quite as strict as that and it tends to relate more to where Rusalka is and where she wants to be at any given time. At one point the other side represents her idealisation of the real world above and later it's the security of the water goblin's kingdom that she wants to return to.
The connections between the water kingdom and the "real" fairy-tale world, and between the creatures and humans who inhabit these places are beautifully realised. The Prince is seen floating dream-like in a pool and Jezibaba appears in a ball of fire, the sets seeming to respond to Rusalka's innocent impressions of the world. Those impressions change as she gets to know how men and women behave in the world, and the whole look and feel of this Rusalka changes with it.
If there's not really any other level to engage with it and no real world context to the fairy-tale imagery there is (always at Vienna I find) the compensatory delights of the singing and musical performances, and those are something quite special in Rusalka. Tomáš Hanus conducts an invigorating musical performance, alive to the joyous folk elements in the score as well as its whole Wagnerian Romantic sweep. More than just being a magical fairy-tale, you can hear how sensitive the score is to the light and dark of human emotions in this kind of presentation.
The singing performances are superb with the ever impressive Krassimira Stoyanova heading the cast. Never a great actress, the role works to Stoyanova's advantage as Rusalka is a simple water nymph and only half-human. Associated with pale blue moonlight, Rusalka drifts sleepwalking her way through the world, but mainly Stoyanova can get away with a less nuanced and engaged acting performance because her singing is just glorious. This is how Rusalka should be sung and all the expression it needs is there in the singing delivery.
The simplicity of the fairy-tale perspective on the world however changes as Rusalka engages with the Prince and his court, witnessing the cruelty of hunted animals and the reality of what takes place between men and women. Bechtolf depicts this wonderfully in a suggestive ballet sequence that contrasts with Rusalka's bed, wedding dress and flowers. The world outside, the water goblin visible behind through the frosted windows, help dispel Rusalka's idealised dream.
It takes a little more than that, but all the angles are covered in the characterisation with singing performances to match. Dmytro Popov is a lovely lyrical Prince and Elena Zhidkova a suitably formidable - but not necessarily vindictive - foreign Princess. Their mistreatment of Rusalka is more of an inability to relate and an inability to see love as something more spiritual the way Rusalka sees it. Or at least in the Prince's case, not until it is too late, which is of course the tragedy of the opera. Jongmin Park and Monika Bohinec also give strong performances with a similar level of nuance - sympathetic yet menacing - as Water Goblin and Jezibaba.
There might not be any great real world context in this Sven-Eric Bechtolf production and certainly nothing in the manner of a Martin Kušej or a Stefan Herheim-like psychological and gender-studies analylsis of its undercurrents, but the essence of Rusalka is all there in the designs, the music and the singing performances. The alternative to a watery-grave for the Prince is beautiful and heartbreaking - two words that should always be associated with Rusalka and the Vienna production achieves that.