Rusalka curtain call (l. to r. Piotr Beczala, Kristine Opolais, Tomas Hanus, Alan Held, Nadia Krasteva)
Rusalka (soprano Kristine Opolais) in her watery environment. Photo: Bavarian State Opera
by Joseph K. So
Munich Opera Festival, July 18, 2011
Kristine Opolais, Rusalka
Piotr Beczala, Prince
Alan Held, Water Goblin
Janina Baechle, Jezibaba
Nadia krasteva, Foreign Princess
Ulrich Ress, Forester
Tara Erraught, Kitchen Boy
Tomas Hanus, conductor
This Munich production of Rusalka generated a great deal of discussion at its premiere in October 2010. It was unlike any Rusalka one would have seen in the past, to put it mildly. Austrian director Martin Kusej has an unrelentingly dark take on the "Czech national fairy tale", a label used by several of my Czech music friends. Incidentally they were outraged by the Rusalka borrowed from Theater Erfurt the COC staged two seasons ago. I shudder to think what they would have thought of the Munich production!
Much has been written about how the stage director re-framed the story to reflect the infamous Austrian child sex abuse case of Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter in a cellar for years where she was subjected to his abuse. When I first read about the Kusej production last year, I couldn't help but felt that to re-imagine an idyllic fairy tale into such a horrific story is either a stroke of creative genius or the product of an extraordinarily macabre mind, or both. Could something like this possibly work? Most of the critiques I read after its premiere were mixed, although there were also some very positive reviews, so I was anxious to see for myself. The only Kusej I'm familiar with is his gritty and uncompromising yet brilliant Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk starring the great Eva-Maria Westbroek. While the sordid story of the Shostakovich is ripe for the Kusej decontructionist treatment, would it work on something like Rusalka?
While Kusej was largely faithful to the original version of the Shostakovich opera, he has taken major liberties in Rusalka. The Water Goblin is now Rusalka's father, and the witch Jezibaba her mother. They live in an upstairs world complete with a huge painted backdrop of beautiful mountains and a serene lake, while Rusalka and her sisters are confined to the leaky, dark dungeon underneath. Her Song to the Moon is sung embracing a plastic globe lamp. She is subjected to periodic sexual abuse by the Water Goblin. Rusalka longs for freedom and Jezibaba releases her but on condition that she is mute, giving her a pair of red shoes in which Rusalka can barely walk. She falls in love with the shallow Prince who dumps her for the Foreign Princess. I find the above scenario rather convoluted, and it gets more so in Act 3 when the Water Goblin inexplicably kills the Gamekeeper and is hauled away by the police. Rusalka and her sister-victims are put in a psychiatric ward. The unfaithful Prince returns to look for Rusalka and stabs himself.
I will comment more on the production later, but my take on the music first. It's always a pleasure to write about the musical side of things at the Munich Opera. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais became an overnight sensation as a result of this production. Last evening, it was clear why. She is an extraordinary singing actor, willing to stretch herself vocally and dramatically. The withdrawal of Nina Stemme meant Opolais assumed a dream role. She has since triumphed as Cio Cio San at Covent Garden. The voice was pushed by the demands of the role, but it didn't break. Her portrayal was completely riveting. Piotr Beczala was an excellent Prince, singing with a more robust sound than Klaus Florian Vogt last year (as revealed in the commercial DVD) Beczala has lost quite a bit of weight, and he looks great. Perhaps he doesn't equal the matinee idol sex appeal of Vogt, but I'd gladly give up a bit of that for his more complete vocalism. Alan Held, replacing last year's Gunther Groissbock, sang impressively as the Water Goblin. Janina Baechle was a strong voiced Jezibaba, while Nadia Krasteva looked vampish with her plunging neckline as the Foreign Princess. She sang with steely tone and coped well except for a few pushed top notes in a role meant for a dramatic soprano. Czech conductor Tomas Hanus lavished care on the score - the sound coming out of the pit was so gorgeous that it created a disconnect with what was happening on stage.
In fact it was one of the more depressing evenings I have spent in the opera house. In a documentary accompanying the commercial release of the DVD, it was pointed out that European fairy tales are really quite dark and violent. I've often wondered if these fairy tales - like Hansel und Gretel, Koenigskinder etc. aren't meant to scare children! No wonder some stage directors like Kusej look at the underside of these fairy tales to reveal a deeper meaning. But this can run into problems too. To my ears, the evocative score of Dvorak, tinged with sadness to be sure, is at odds with Kusej's intentions. On a certain level this production works - the callous human behaviour towards creatures they don't understand, the destruction of nature and the environment, for example are important and cogent issues underscored in this production. But to skin a deer onstage and the macabre dance of the women with dead deers I find heavy-handed and are there for shock value. The linking of the story to the Fritzl case leaves too many holes - not to speak of wholesale changes - in the story. While Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk maybe ideal for this sort of radical re-imagining, I don't feel it worked nearly as well in Rusalka. It's daring, audacious, striking, provocative, but is it coherent and will it be enduring? Only time will tell.