Well,well,well! What a minor controversy Rusalka at Covent Garden has turned out to be! Opening night of this production, new to the Royal Opera, was met with a 'chorus of boos' and there were tales of disgusted opera goers walking out at the interval. The Independent claimed that 'the vulgarities were manifold' and the Daily Telegraph published a raft of articles relating to the heckling received on opening night. It even crept out of the normal opera review pages and onto the BBC and prompted Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, to take to the ROH website to explain why he is a fan of this opera. Amoungst the uproar there were actually some very positive reviews too, the Financial Times loved it describing the production as 'theatrically exciting and musically compelling..' and Evening Standard were also very positive. In fact, even the Daily Telegraph ended up giving the show a fairly modest 3 stars.
So what was all the fuss about?? I think it largely stemmed from the directors' choice of setting the story in a brothel. Rusalka is based very closely on the fairy tale the Little Mermaid - In fact it's pretty much exactly the same, except the lead character is a water nymph instead of a mermaid and the evil Ursula (i'm going by the Walt Disney version here!) is an old witch instead of an octopus. So essentially this production turns the Little Mermaid into a whore. There are one or two racy moments, like when a big black tom-cat (one of the weirder moments of the show) semi-assaults Rusalka and when the witch cops a fondle with the kitchen boy in the final act. But to be honest, I think you'd need to have lived a pretty sheltered existence to find those moments cause to walk out in horror. It's a little strange that people seemed so surprised by all this as the production may have been new to Covent Garden, but it has already been given an outing before at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. Surely by reading up a little, you would have known what to expect?
Aside from the 'racy' moments and the concept of setting a story like the Little Mermaid in a brothel, I think another problem here was that people just didn't like the modern setting. I think that's a real shame. I've seen better modern takes on old operas - Cosi fan tutte earlier this month for example, or the brilliant production by the Royal Opera of The Tsars Bride last year. But I actually enjoyed this take on the story. It's refreshing to see attempts to bring opera into the present day, it can make it more accessible and appealing to a wider audience. The story told in Rusalka is gritty and dark, and the the characters in this production brought that out superbly. The sets at times looked a bit bare or unattractive, but i think the characters rose above that. I don't want to be rude towards the core Covent Garden audience, but they're not getting any younger. In order for opera to continue to thrive younger audiences are needed and modern productions such as this one are at least one way of attracting such an audience. I think it's important for Covent Garden to continue with productions like this and also those of Anna Nicole and Miss Fortune (coming later this month). They're tough to do as they often don't receive the best reviews and often seem to sell poorly. But i still think it's vital to push forward with new ideas around opera. It'd be devastating for new people to miss out on the chance to get into this exquisite art form!
Anyway - 'controversy' and production aside for a moment. What about the singers and the music? Both were absolutely fantastic! I'd never seen or even heard any of Rusalka before, but Dvorak's music was just utterly sublime! Dramatic, moving and beautiful, but also refreshing after a series of Mozart operas. I loved it, really loved it. I think it was enhanced further by the brilliant conductor in the pit, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, from Montreal. He conducted with passion and pace and really got the best out of a fantastic orchestra. I really hope we get to see more of him following this, his debut at the house. The singers were also excellent, especially Camilla Nylund in the title role and Agnes Zwierko as Jezibaba, the witch. Bryan Hymel also excelled as the Prince. The singers, orchestra and conductor all got a mighty round of applause, plenty of cheers and not a single boo on Thursday night - i think it helped that the directors, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, didn't come on stage!
So, overall, was Rusalka at Covent Garden a boo worthy, dirty, controversial production? In my opinion, absolutely not. The production isn't perfect, but the concept is interesting and relevant. The singing was top class, the orchestra and conducting some of the best i've heard in awhile. It was a refreshing evening and nice to see something a little different on London's premier opera stage. I'm glad it divided opinion, opera should and does divide opinion and it has done since it's earliest beginnings!
Seat: A99, Amphitheater Lower Slips Right, £13 *** (Good value, but be prepared to lean!)
Synopsis: Think the Little Mermaid and you're there.
- The Royal Opera House have put together a collection of the very varied reviews that this production has received. They can be found here: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/from-one-star-to-five-reactions-to-rusalka;
- Kasper Holtens video address on Rusalka : http://www.roh.org.uk/news/kasper-holten-on-why-he-loves-dvoraks-rusalka;
- The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/feb/28/rusalka-review;
- The Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/9111257/Rusalka-Royal-Opera-House-review.html
- In fact the Daily Telegraph general opera page is virtually all on Rusalka at the moment: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/
- The Independent - a real corker of a bad review this one: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/dvorak-rusalka-royal-opera-house-7451953.htm
NEXT OPERA: Rigoletto, 2nd April. It should of course be Miss Fortune, but sadly I will miss this as i'm on holiday for the entire run!