Tuesday, May 28

Rusalka – Royal Opera House

Created and directed by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, who is also the choreographer, the contemporary whilst still traditional new staging of this lyrical fairy tale captures nature’s impassioned plea to humanity whilst musically only Dvořák can break your heart so beautifully.

From an exquisite aerial ballet reflecting the delicate balance between nature and humanity at the start, three wood spirits (Vuvu Mpofu, Gabriele Kupšyte and Anne Marie Stanley) playfully tease Vodník (Alexei Isaev), an immortal water spirit. All seems to be perfect but his daughter, Rusalka (Asmik Grigorian) longs to be united with the Prince (David Butt Philip) with whom she fell in love when he swam in the lake.

Despite being warned about the seductive dangers of humanity that promises much whilst delivering little, she turns to the worldly-wise witch Ježibaba (Sarah Connolly) to magically transform her into human form although this is at the cost of her voice in the human domain. Once there, whilst at first there is the hint of hope from the song of the hunter (Josef Jeongmeen Ahn), the reception from the comic pairing of the forester Hajny (Ross Ramgobin) and his nephew Kuchtík (Hongni Wu) is far from funny, nor is it from a passionate love rival Duchess (Emma Bell). They say there be careful what you wish for: will there be a shining light and salvation for Rusalka?

The humanity versus nature theme is front and centre of Chloe Lamford’s set design which has maintained an ecological focus by avoiding the obvious temptation of running water features and instead recycling older unwanted sets with, for example, the lush forest lakeside vegetation made from wardrobe department offcuts.

This theme is carried through to Annemarie Wood’s costumes which have mostly been recycled from a 1991 production of Carmen with the added pollution of oil slicks illustrating humanity’s misguided purpose. In contrast the wood spirits are covered in moss whilst the water spirits wear translucent capes which delightfully shimmer from Paule Constable’s lighting effects that capture the break of morn, the last rays of light as the sun goes down, and the dancing moonlight of the night, gently submerging us into this mystical, magical fairytale world.

Sung in librettist Jaroslav Kvapil’s original Czech, all the singers are equally delightful and beyond imagination. Grigorian serves up a beautifully polished Rusalka whilst displaying some wonderful acting skills as she sensitively emulates her character’s discovery of human senses, with her delightful rendition of ‘Song to the Moon’ to die for. Butt Philip matches her perfectly with his soaring tenor as the fickle Prince, with his overall performance imploring our hope that he will see the error of his ways.

Bell’s Duchess and Connolly’s Ježibaba could almost be opposite sides of the same coin with one demonstrating the apparently likeable yet conniving and shallow nature of humanity whilst the other is quite happy to be emulating its dangers in a different form as a warning from nature; both successfully avoid the risk of over-dramatisation. Isaev delivers a solid performance with a strong stage presence befitting his role whilst Ramgobin and Wu capture the idiosyncrasies of family relationships to good humorous effect.

Whilst there is a clear Wagnerian influence at the beginning, the drama and musicality that unfolds is pure Dvořák and it is in the pit under the direction of Semyon Bychkov that the magic really happens as the orchestra delightfully capture the folksy lyricism drawn from Slavic folklore and Czech nationalism: they say be careful what you wish for? I couldn’t have hoped for much more.

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 24th January 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.