SECULAR LITURGIES

A critical view

Tom Sutcliffe argues that Covent Garden’s new Rusalka did not deserve the audience’s chorus of disapproval

Boos at Covent Garden were in the news again. Dvorák’s ill-fated water-nymph Rusalka in the Royal Opera’s new production – a retread from the Salzburg Festival – was living in a quite a smart modern brothel from which she wanted, not surprisingly, to escape. This is an opera about a woman who is desperate to change her life, who acquires a man who needs her to change, but who then cannot make the changes work out – with tragic consequences, of course.

Critics’ responses

Once upon a time at the ENO there was a staging of Rusalka by David Pountney in which the nymphs were girls in a sort of Edwardian nursery, with the water goblin Vodnik presented as their grandfather and the witch Ježibaba as a sort of tricky governess. At Covent Garden Rusalka’s magical transformation by Ježibaba into a human being was effected by a large comical black cat with yellow eyes, which by the third act (back in the brothel) had itself in turn become a real and extremely well-behaved mog.

The majority of the newspaper critics endorsed the booers’ views. But what was the fuss about? I suspect colleagues remembered roundly disliking a Handel production from Stuttgart from the same team (Israeli director Jossi Wieler who now runs Stuttgart, and his invariable collaborator and chief dramaturge Sergio Morabito) which visited the Edinburgh Festival quite a few years ago.

In fact the same team’s staging of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova might have even been enthusiastically received as it uses mostly traditional peasant costumes. Were the booers wanting to have ‘authentic’ water- and wood-nymphs? Would a Harry Potter approach have done better? Asked one critic, could not the Royal Opera have found a better staging to import?

A sober production

As it happens Stephan Herheim’s Rusalka created for the Monnaie in Brussels is now going the rounds. I saw it in Dresden a year ago, and it is set intriguingly in Brussels not far from the Monnaie but also includes some episodes inside what looks very much like a Belgian brothel (the Brussels opera house is in a dubious part of the city full of sex workers). In Dresden it was wonderfully sung and extremely well conducted by the young star maestro Tomas Netopil.

The Wieler/Morabito new Rusalka at Covent Garden was a subtle rather sober production in which nothing very untoward occurred. The chorus of party-goers for the royal marriage were all offstage, though of course Petra Lang made the most of her effortless superiority as the foreign princess whose ability to use language renders her far more appealing in the middle act to the Prince than the hapless Rusalka whose transformation by Ježibaba did not include the ability to use words. Perhaps the booers would have preferred Basel’s current production by a young Latvian woman director set at a Baltic seaside resort: at least that had oodles of partification.

Europhobes

What the Royal Opera did offer was a superb Prince – Bryan Hymel’s tenor delivery was the real very exciting thing – and Alan Held was also pretty impressive as Vodnik. Camilla Nylund in the title role was not bad either. And nobody complained about the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Sadly it seems critics and public have become Europhobes regardless, and it is true that a lot of German opera productions do wilfully ignore the story, dress the cast in modern working-class off-the-peg clothes, and take place in an all-purpose disused suburban warehouse or building-site.

Both Robert Carsen and Christoph Loy offer productions where everybody is wearing Armani suits – but whereas Carsen is acceptable to Brits, being a Canadian who trained here, the German Loy tends to be given the brush-off when he works at Covent Garden, though Sir Antonio Pappano has been an enthusiast for his works for 15 years.

Dullness of course takes many forms in the opera house. But Covent Garden’s new Rusalka really did not deserve a chorus of disapproval – though it was not one of those revelatory experiences one always hopes to find. It held my attention well enough, and was a lot better than a totally traditional production from Olmutz in Bohemia that I saw at the Rome Opera which I left at the interval.

A political opera

ENO’s straightforward, simple, and rather old-fashioned production of John Adams’s The Death of Klingho~er was a considerable success for its director Tom Morris – not least because it was brilliantly conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, and adorned with a very striking performance of the title role by the neglected British veteran star Alan Opie. Well done the ENO for putting on this opera which various Zionists have suggested we should not be performing because it tries to give the Palestinians’ side too kind a press.

I regretted the omission of the best thing in the whole work, the chorus about Hagar and Ishmael that opens, or should open, the second act: this has always been a musical peak in this weird oratorio-like opera. True, Alice Goodman’s text has its pretentious and rather over-stated bits. But as a whole the piece is distinctive, effective and well worth seeing. It is a political opera to set alongside masterpieces like Verdi’s Don Carlos and Beethoven’s Fidelio and one cannot say better than that. ND

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