Rusalka - Nationaltheater Munich, 23 October 2010
Martin Kušej's Rusalka is no fairy tale, though I wonder if that was made clear beforehand to the parents of the sweet little girls I saw in the foyer before the show, all done up in their party best. Let's just say that two hours of rape, incest and disembowelled animals later, they were nowhere to be seen.
Maybe it should carry a warning sticker, but Kušej's dark fable includes some of the most powerful and original work I've seen for some time. Like many an ambitious retelling, it doesn't quite entirely hang together, but it does reveal a weight and contemporary relevance that no mermaid story could.
The Waterman, sung by the grainy and expressive bass Gunther Groissböck, has become a sinister Fritzl-like figure in stained vest and tracksuit bottoms. In the room he shares with the witch Jezibaba is a tattered armchair and a kitsch alpine mural. Beneath in a damp cellar are his terrified yet compliant daughters, from adult down to disturbingly tiny child. They obediently dress up in sparkling gowns to be abused.
Like Natascha Kampusch, Rusalka fights a fierce, compulsive attachment to her tormentor before she finally breaks free. The moon she sings to is a globe lamp, her escape route a ladder upstairs. But, teetering like Bambi in the impossibly high heels provided by Jezibaba, she finds the world outside the basement more brutal and grotesque than the one she has left behind.
She watches as the gamekeeper skins a (fake) deer, then forces the kitchen boy (played here as a young girl) to plunge her hands in its bloody guts while he feels her up. She's shocked to discover her Prince taking the tarty Foreign Princess up against a wall. But unable to understand or control her own body she has nothing to offer him.
Longing for the familiar damp and confinement of her cellar prison, she climbs into an aquarium. (Fake fish too - the opera house were apparently worried that real ones might slip between the floorboards and stink up the theatre). So far so good. Kušej's concept sits so neatly with the music you'd think it was tailor-made, though the German surtitles get a little illicit tweaking.
The concept falls apart a bit in the third act. The Waterman turns serial slasher, stabbing the gamekeeper to death. Police pop up comedically and cart him off. The plot twist fits the music perfectly, but it smacks of glued-on Hollywood justice - the dramatic pacing is all wrong. For the final scene, everyone's been despatched to an asylum. In this half-world between life and death, the Waterman is handcuffed under guard and Rusalka is comatose as the work ends with the Prince's suicide.
It was hard to believe Krístīne Opolaís had never before sung the role in a staged production. Her voice is not beautiful and was sometimes worryingly forced, but her intensity, lack of inhibition and physical commitment gave her performance the sort of compelling honesty you rarely see. The complete opposite of the lovely line approach of Renee Fleming (coincidentally, sitting in the Intendant's box), it was absolutely right for this production. Klaus Florian Vogt's contained and elegantly-sung Prince formed a precise counterweight. Nadia Krasteva's lush mezzo seduced vocally and physically as the Foreigh Princess.
Tomáš Hanus conducted with fluency and brilliant pace. Wisely I think he didn't seek to impose a single arc, crafting his interpretation instead with dramatic urgency around the emotions of the moment. Stripped of folkloristic baggage, Dvořák emerged as Wagner's crudely elemental country cousin.
Some of the newspapers reported extensive booing for the director at the end, but this is simply not the case. Unfortunately the curtain dropped just as the production team were about to come on the first time round, which may have inflamed matters. When the team appeared at the end of the second curtain call, there were no more than a handful of boos - enthusiastically repeated to be sure, but limited. Of course booing carries easily, and even one boo is hard to miss, but I really don't think more than four or five people were involved. I guess that doesn't sell papers, though.
The biggest hand, it's fair to say, went to Krístīne Opolaís and Klaus Florian Vogt. Opolaís sacrificed a Met debut (as Musetta) to take over when Nina Stemme pulled out at the start of rehearsals, a choice she surely won't regret one bit.
BR-Klassik broadcast the show live, and piped the pre-show chat into the first floor foyer, where, bizarrely, people sat round to listen to the loudspeakers:
Director Kušej' invites the booers to bring it on: