I had often approached Rusalka with a degree of scepticism. When I see it, I’m always reminded of the spell it must have spun. It was the first opera I saw - an English National Opera production back in 1984. Only a fragmented memory of that evening remains although I remember nodding off along the way in those head dropping moments that instantly wake you back up. For whatever reason, I haven’t stopped going to see opera ever since. In San Francisco Opera’s new production, originally directed by David McVicar for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014 and seen here under revival director Leah Hausman, the spell has been recast with such potency in a magnificent and mystical staging that I was on my feet, converted forever and swimming in the depths of its various themes. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s evocative work has found in McVicar’s brave and visionary concept a perfectly harmonised home.
|Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka|
McVicar delves deeper than the depths of Rusalka’s watery abode, diving beyond emotional tribulations and casting a concept in a contrasting and haunting inky-hued and silvery form that puts man in conflict with nature. Kvapil’s libretto alludes to this interpretation. With it, a dark fairytale is turned into a universal tragedy. From the sides of the stage, the presence of a massive retaining wall demands curiosity, its infrastructural intrusion on the moonlit, leafless wooded landscape rendering the natural beauty of Rusalka’s lake a murky marshy habit. Even the forest nymphs, who dance about inelegantly as depraved creatures in soiled attire, appear stained by man’s progress.
|Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and|
Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince
Musically and vocally, too, it is carried off with highly impressive results. Within Dvořák’s lush orchestration there’s a whiff of Wagner, a sense of Strauss and a touch of Tchaikovsky among his influences and conductor Eun Sun Kim, in her company debut, captures the darkness, the gossamer-like, the bombastic and mystery of the score with elan.
|Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba|
Imposing stentorian American tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s Prince is handsomely distinguished and utterly unlikeable. For a man who sees Rusalka as a trophy of the hunt, every kiss comes with an ugly force that signifies mans assault on nature and Jovanovich’s vocal muscularity and compelling acting suited the role perfectly. The fabulously rich and striking resonance of Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge plants determination and jealousy with ease on the Foreign Princess. Surrounded by her fine trio of sinister flapping and pecking crows, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has no trouble combining a smug and menacing Ježibaba with mountains of smouldering vocal contortions as a seemingly embattled protector of nature.
|Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess|
When the tale reaches the finale, an aching sense of remorse peels out across the landscape and there seems hope for the natural world. Under the spell of its visually dark and enticing complexity, luscious orchestral tapestry and splendid vocal ardency, you find it’s easy to understand seeing it just once is not enough for some besotted opera goers.
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 28th June, 2019
Production Photos: Cory Weaver