Scottish Opera’s revival of Anthony McDonald’s Grange Park Opera production of Rusalka provides opportunities for some fabulous singing. However, the production itself sometimes feels a little lacklustre and tired.
It took a while for things to warm up. The evening begins with an underwater scene digitally projected onto the front of the stage, presumably to set the scene for the underwater world of Rusalka the water nymph. It isn’t a particularly bad idea but the trouble is, it just isn’t done well enough. It feels as though someone has simply trawled the internet for some fishy clip art and is them making it swoosh from one side of the stage to the other. The effect is more reminiscent of an early Windows aquarium screensaver than an enchanted glade. Once the curtains part and we see the lake, there’s quite a lot of action from a bunch of singing wood nymphs before we get to the matter in hand. Three non-singing wood nymphs cavorted amongst the singing ones which again wasn’t a bad idea but not really done well enough to impress.
Eventually we were on to some glorious singing. Sir Willard White appeared from beneath the undulating solid waves which suggested the lake. He may have come from the bottom of the pond but there was no suggestion of anything other than top-notch singing in his role as Vodník the water goblin, Rusalka’s father. Indeed, the richness of his vocal palate provided a secure anchor to everything else going on around him whenever he was on the stage.
Gentle, ethereal Anne Sophie Duprels had the title role, which she also sang in the original Grange Park Opera performances in 2011. Her singing was secure and beautiful and her Song to the Moon seemed to hold the whole theatre in rapt stillness. I shall remember for some time not merely Ms Duprels’s singing but the reaction of the person sitting next to me – a rather agitated and figety older member of the audience. As the Song to the Moon soared effortlessly though the air, she clasped her hands, let out a gentle sigh and became still and completely engrossed in the singing. Her face reflected in the moonlight from the stage was transfixed and delighted. It was the perfect opera moment; a complete connection between singer and audience member and a reminder that this is what opera is all about.
Leah-Marian Jones was a strong Ježibaba – the witch who casts a spell to enable Rusalka to pass as a human being with the twin conditions that she will remain mute in front of her lover and that she will be an outcast forever if her lover spurns her. Ms Jones seemed to use the sharp Czech consonants as extensions of the knives and shears with which she turned Rusalka’s fins into legs, enabling her to join in with human life in search of her prince.
In the second half, we were introduced to Rusalka’s rival for the Prince’s affections, Natalya Romaniw playing the part of the Foreign Princess. She was the strongest singer in a strong cast and completely dominated the stage whenever she appeared.
The curiosity of the evening though was the Prince, played by Peter Wedd. For me this was where the production came a bit unstuck. Although vocally, Wedd’s singing was spot on, he presented a very cold character and it was difficult to see what either Rusalka or the Foreign Princess saw in him. He sounded vibrant but seemed dramatically a bit washed out. His are the relationships upon which the plot turns and the director didn’t seem to give him enough to do in order to make clear why anyone would bother about him.
In the pit, Stuart Stratford was making a confident start to his reign as Music Director of Scottish Opera. The large orchestra shimmered through Dvořák’s score flawlessly with good balance and sensitive playing throughout.
By the time we got to the third act, things were starting to flag just a little. The director tried to keep us interested by having some of the wood nymphs pole dance on the trees in the woods and provided some comic business with two servants and Ježibaba. However, by that time of night it was a bit late for comedy and it was starting to feel like a late evening all round.
Rusalka has not been performed that often in Scotland. The last production was in 1964 and this production only receives five performances in this run. It isn’t difficult to see why Scottish Opera would import a production that did well at Grange Park Opera but I suspect it will be a while before we see a fresh new production here.
Anthony McDonald the director never seems to settle on what the opera is really about, though perhaps that’s a problem with the piece rather than the production. The first act seems to ask us what we are prepared to risk for love and what we need to subject ourselves to in order to become human. The second act seems pretty unconnected and in this production is all about the now human Rusalka being rejected because she wasn’t quite our class, dear. And the third act was about unrequited love. Though Rusalka and her Prince are both prepared to sacrifice everything for love, we are never given any insight into why.
There is a great deal to like musically about this production. The singing is wonderful and will linger in the memory for some time. Unfortunately, puzzling questions about the production will linger too.
(Photos from the Grange Park Opera production : credit Alastair Muir)