Rusalka at the Volksoper: Green party

Comparing the Volksoper to the Bayerische Staatsoper is unfair to both, but when you see the same opera at both within three days, it’s unavoidable.  André Barbe and Renaud Doucet’s new Volksoper Rusalka is an environmentally conscious meditation with a much softer touch than Martin Kušej’s brutal Munich staging.  When two of the three Viennese nymphs missed their first entrance, I inwardly groaned, and when the Water Goblin started handing out lollypops, I wanted to scream “DON’T TAKE CANDY FROM THE NICE MAN, KIDS!!!!”  But this is a production fit for the whole family, and a nice evening out all told.

There is a point at which a wood nymph douses herself with gasoline, though.  Good to know that I’m still in Europe!

Dvořák, Rusalka.  Volksoper Wien, 28/10/10.  New production in German by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet with sets and costumes by the same, lights by Guy Simard, choreography by Doucet.  Conducted by Henrik Nánási with Kristiane Kaiser (Rusalka), Aleš Briscein (The Prince), Mischa Schelomianski (Water Goblin), Victoria Safronova (The Foreign Princess), Dubravka Musovic (Jezibaba).

This entry comes to you from the very crowded standing room line for Juan Diego’s Nemorino.

The press has described this production as Alice in Wonderland, and indeed it opens with Rusalka climbing up from a little girl’s bedroom into a magical forest.  But if there’s a real metatext here it’s Wall-E: the story-book forest is beautiful, but it’s also clogged with trash, destroyed by the humans Rusalka foolishly wants to join.  The wood nymphs cavort merrily anyways, though the overall effect of their choreography is reminiscent of a children’s musical, meaning that it is sweet but it is trying very hard to be sweet and I could do with fewer cartwheels. 

Rusalka is an ethereal, blond woman in white who wanders aimlessly.  Fuzzy orange Snuffleupagus-like Jezibaba can make the scattered trash bags dance (their choreography resembles that of the nymphs), which, well, I'm not sure what it symbolizes.  After transforming Rusalka by way of feeding her some somewhat moony LED lights, she transforms herself into the Foreign Princess (though the roles are sung by two different singers).  So Jezibaba tests the Prince in Act 2, and he fails.

The Prince lives among a bevy of grotesquely rotund humans who waddle around, gorge themselves on the wedding reception food, wear designer-logo clothes, leave their trash lying around, etc.  It seems that the Prince, the only vaguely attractive figure of the lot, is trying to get back to the land, hence Rusalka’s appeal.  But he sails his shiny boat over the water instead of jumping into it. 

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s more setup than narrative and the generic and minimal Personenregie doesn’t do much to dramatize the story or give the characters depth.  I tried to come up with something to say about Act 3 above, but the production doesn’t really seem to, and the ending lacks emotional impact.  The design has a few issues, some probably a matter of budget (Rusalka’s dreadful wig) but others just unfortunate (send those wood nymphs back to Stefan Herheim’s Lohengrin).

But there are some nice visual touches.  The Falstaffian Gamekeeper (complete with antlers), the bicycle-riding Man in the Moon, the Kitchen Boy wearing a pot on his head, and the first appearance of the fat hunters are all delights (though I couldn't locate any of them except the fat hunters in the production photos). In the production’s darkest moment, one of the wood nymphs seemingly unknowingly picks up a stray can of gasoline and douses herself, not that we see her go up in flames. Unfortunately the much-vaunted dancing trash bags are over-used.  And both of these things contribute more to the general concept than they do to telling the story.

Musically things were solid.  Kristiane Kaiser is a really lovely Rusalka with a creamy, remarkably even soprano fit for both the dramatic and gentle parts of the role.  Sometimes she was overly studious in articulating the clumsy German translation, which came across with admirable clarity but interfered with the musical line. (You try singing “Zwar pflegst du Nixen des Nachts zu erschrecken, doch heilst du Menschenkummer schon mit Blicken” smoothly.)  She was all delicate sensitivity and lightness onstage, not much of a journey in acting terms but sympathetic.
Aleš Briscein was a stiff Prince with a pleasant tenor voice without particular lyric beauty or power, and an unfortunate tendency towards cliché tenor hand gestures.  Dubravka Musovic was an excellent Jezibaba (redundantly credited in the program as “Die Hexe Jezibaba”.... guys, “Jezibaba” just means “Die Hexe” [Witch] in Czech) with the kind of Slavic mezzo that can peel paint but you like it anyways.  Victoria Safronova was a very loud Foreign Princess with far too much vibrato to settle on any pitch, and incomprehensible German.  Mischa Schelomianski was a woolly but amiable Water Goblin.  One of the nymphs was out of service and being sung offstage by someone else, which made their trios somewhat rocky, and was probably the cause of that exceptionally bumpy start.  Henrik Nánási conducted with flowing tempos and excellent details, and the Volksoper orchestra sounded good despite some wayward brass entrances.

Kušej is the equivalent of operatic absinthe: probably inadvisable in large quantities.  Barbe and Doucet's production is accessible, enjoyable, and reasonably creative.  This might not sound like a ringing endorsement--truth is, Kušej is also lots more interesting to write about--but sometimes you just want your operas without dissection, right?

Dubravka Mušović-Šeparović


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