My article previewing the production last week was based on a wide-ranging interview with Sergio Morabito, one of its duo of directors, and revival director Samantha Seymour. I thought it might be interesting, in the light of all this fuss, to revisit the original transcript for more detail. It's longish, and Sergio's English is quite Germanic, so get yourself a cuppa...
(Images: Royal Opera House/Clive Barda)
JD: Sergio, how and why did you decide to give Rusalka this very modern type of production, full of symbols?
SM: Jossi Wieler, my directing partner and I, always try not to impose something, not to force something – we try to develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and the musical text. What was decisive for this experience was that we discover that we need to find a balance, to balance it very carefully and not neglect the fairytale moments, which of course are important. Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid and we try to go with it and play with it. But we decided together with the stage designer not to have a naturalistic setting, but we try to evoke this summer night’s dream kind of atmosphere, which is part of the score that you can’t just overrule. So we have a simple space which can transform and as a second layer we have the video projections which are conveying much of this fairytale atmosphere. Even in the costumes we play with it with these moments – we went back to Andersen and Rusalka really has this fish tail and tries to get rid of it and turn it into human legs. I think everything lies in a certain playfulness.
But it’s important to realise the opera is a very dark fin-de-siecle reworking of this ancient story. This is crucial: it’s really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope. The ending is one of the most hopeless endings until now in opera, because of what she’s experiencing. This incredible development of Rusalka from a young woman, almost a girl, who tries to break out and find her own way and leave her father, risking everything in order to live this love, but then gradually becoming aware that she cannot live in this cold human world: she’s fooled by the society, humiliated by them and betrayed by the prince of course. Then the third act is very desperate. It’s not so much about an intact natural world - but one of the first lines is that Vodnik the water goblin says "You are selling yourself," bartering – like The Bartered Bride, in Czech it's the same word – so it is also about the violation of the natural world. Then she realises that the human kind of utopia she dreamed of discovering with her prince becomes a trap more and more. We end up – it’s sort of inspired element, very strange, maybe it has some fin-de-siecle elements, but it is really a brothel, with sofas and couches...
SS: An American brothel!
SM: We end up in a very sad situation where she has no escape any more and so she decides in our production to commit suicide - which is an important element of the Rusalka story. Pushkin wrote a drama which he didn’t complete and later Dargomyszky transformed it into an opera – it’s the East European Rusalka myth, about a woman or children also who were not baptised or were expelled from Christian society, so they had no burial and they are doomed to live not living, not being dead, expelled by this Christian world. In the Pushkin she commits suicide and transforms into a rusalka - she comes back as a kind of vampire and drags him to his death. This goes perfectly not only with the music but also the text of this opera. It’s a horror ending: the prince goes mad and crazy, begging she gives him the mortal kiss, so it's not a love reconciliation, but she’s really kissing him to death. She comes back from the dead and revenges herself. She knows that she never will be granted salvation because she’s been told from the very beginning
SS: She can save the prince but she can’t save herself.
SM: Her last words to him when she kills him are "May God be merciful to you," but she knows that she herself is doomed to haunt this place.
SS: In this undead state
SM: exactly. We tried to find the right balance, and it's very sophisticated and playful, but also a sophisticated game of the authors of the text. It has much to do with this fin de siècle melancholy and sadness.
JD: When Dvorak wrote the work, around 1900, Freud's work was already current and it strikes me that the Freudian symbolism is very clear - do you think that is a deliberate element in the opera?
SS: I think that was partly the spirit of the times – the decadence of turn-of-the-century Vienna.
SM: It’s not so far away...it started around the same time. There's a strange structure to the story with the Foreign Princess: we don’t know what the relationship with the prince is, where does she suddenly come from – this very violent, destructive female character. And of course it’s also the madness of the prince at the end, he goes crazy.
SS: He really does despair - and he’s in a pretty rocky state at the beginning!
SM: One can assume he tried to fall in love with Rusalka: already he’s trying to liberate himself from the spell from the foreign princess, it could be an explanation. Then he realises he can't cope with the other woman – the foreign princess is a bit much for him and he tries to conform to his society and their expectations when he meets Rusalka, but her idea of love is too different. He has not the strength to fight for it, in a way. He’s so fragile – and he is very brutal to Rusalka in the second act, when he falls completely under the power of the Foreign Princess.
JD: The story seems full of echoes of Giselle and Swan Lake...
SM: Yes, the Wilis, the women who were abandoned before the wedding...it’s exactly this tradition. That’s what we have to make concrete, this journey by Rusalka...
JD: Will you make many changes from your original production in Salzburg? (This interview was on the first day of ROH rehearsals).
SM: Two of the main parts are the same singers – Camilla Nylund was crucial because she is so charming on the one side and has so many colours she can convey vocally and with her acting. She’s able to have this playfulness, but she faces also the catastrophes of this character and the final scene is really chilling. But of course we try to react, not just to fit in the new singers. We have to find it and adapt it and it’s a great chance to work over some details.
SS: There's an element that involves the Austrian Empire - bringing the production to England, we have to make sure the wedding party wouldn’t be construed as being German because they’re in dirndls and lederhosen. It’s not about germany, it’s about Austria. If you just picked 30 people outside the Salzburg Festspielhaus they’d look like our chorus!
SM: Of course the Habsburgs and Czechoslovakia was part of it - the national opera was a manifestation of the Czech identity. We have on stage a little fountain with the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, but she wears a sort of halo: she's a pagan being, but she dreams of having sanctity and being granted a soul and being safe. That’s the background of the folklore motifs: these gods, goddesses, wood nymphs and sea nymphs that were demonised under Christianity. It’s not that their existence is denied, but it was thought that the devil was behind these elemental spirits, so this plays a certain role that we see these fairytale characters – in a way, they are in exile. They don’t live in the Bohemian woods, but they've had to retreat. They got pushed out to the edges of society. What we try to have is space for imagination – in the third act you might have this association that it’s a brothel because you see how people are dressed and how they act, but its just one moment of the story. We didn’t want to define it in one way, but to leave it open to different interpretations.
JD: You're mixing the references to the late Habsburg Empire with something much more 21st-century...
SM: Yes, it’s not that you can say OK, we put it in the 1960s or 1980s – we are coming from different sources, so we have a very beautiful traditional Czech wedding dress for Rusalka. It’s an invented world on stage – if you have documentary realism it wouldn’t work.
SM: She’s terrifying. Rusalka addresses her really as an ancient goddess - maybe Hecate, who was a benign goddess thousands of years ago, but now she’s reduced to a very miserable existence and she’s frustrated, of course, because she lost her dignity and people forgot her and think she’s just the old witch. So we see an old woman who can hardly walk - but she has some skills. It’s a mixture, so we don’t have just a classical fairytale, but this is a woman like those you can see on the streets nowadays. A bag lady. But she has a very special cat, which she addresses in the text also – it’s a very frightening, big cat, played by a dancer.
JD: (remembering with alarm what happened in the Glyndebourne production) It doesn’t get its paw chopped off when they make the potion, does it....?
SM: No, this is a bit more playful! The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat and it’s funny this fishwoman loves this toy cat; and suddenly in the scene with the witch it transforms into a cruel monster. And this cat transforms her and gives her legs.
SS: It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and it’s quite horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her.
SM: Everybody wants her, but she’s relentless, she really fights for her dream and does everything...and at the very end, in the third act in this brothel situation, there is the cat of Madame Jezibaba, a real one, sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is really trapped and she commits suicide. She asks "How can I come back to my former existence?". Jezibaba says "You have to stab the prince," and gives her a knife. In Dvorak she’s supposed to throw the knife into the lake and in our production, with the same words - it makes perfect sense - she says "he shall be happy, whatever happens to me" and she kills herself.
SS: The alternative is that the world of the nymphs is also the world of the brothel so if she decided to stay there, she’d become one of the girls.
JD: What do you say to people who say "but this is a fairytale and we want a mermaid"?
SM: But we have one! We have also the nymphs! We have a giant cat! They are right – you shouldn’t negate this abstractly, but you also shouldn’t reduce the fairy story because it’s much more than that.
SS: I think fairytales have got a bad name – a lot of them are very psychologically dark, not harmless little stories for children. We do have fairy tale elements and the video projections to create that kind of ambience. SM: I’ve often seen beautiful films which are also playing with fairy tales, transposing them to a more contemporary world of experience. Children, when they hear fairy tales, they have concrete associations, they connect it to their real world. They don’t analyse them, but I remember how you link to certain persons or certain objects - so, you try to understand through the symbols when you don’t know the real meaning of old words.
SS: There’s a lot of cruelty in them. I once went to a children’s performance of Cinderella where the Ugly Sisters had their feet chopped off to fit into the slippers. A friend of mine who’s a kindergarten teacher said you have to have this because children have an innate sense of right and wrong and if the bad sisters aren’t punished fittingly then they go out with this sense that it was unjust! So the cruelty is justified. That was an interesting insight.
JD: This is the first time Rusalka has been done here. Is that maybe why people have fought shy of it, because it is so dark?
SM: It’s hard to say, but it could be one reason.
SS: There’s a sort of renaissance of it going on – since we did our production in Salzburg there’ve been several others that have been very successful.
SM: Also the Czech language...Especially in Germany, we have this repertory sustem and it’s not so easy to fill the houses... I think it’s partly due to the language, which also affects the musical language in an interesting way. I could imagine for some people this makes it difficult. [Morabito is currently based in Stuttgart.]
JD: You work very much in tandem with another director, Jossi Wieler – this is interesting, because in my experience some directors tend to be a tad despotic?
SM: We’ve done opera together since 1994 and it’s a collective art work per se. You are not free – you have to respond from moment to moment to so many decisions the composer made. When you stage a play you have carte blanche to give the text a new structure and make a collage, etc, to create an exciting and interesting production. But in opera you have to contend with the grid of the score. And so that’s what we try to do: for us it’s all about the common process between the two of us and also the designer and the singers We really believe that you have to free the singers, you have to coach them in the best possible way... You are not just reacting: there are many decisions to take in advance before the rehearsal process starts. But the most beautiful thing is when the singers take over more and more responsibility. We’re not directors who expect singers to fill the form we’re defining; we try to stimulate their own fantasy.
SS: What you often do is tell the singers what the situation is and what you want them to communicate, but not how you want them to communicate it. I think that’s a big difference.
SM: So often you see opera where everybody is trying to make a remake of the film that was already made in their head, whereas for us the great thing is when they become freer and freer and have their own life - it's not like being marionettes. You find so much more that you couldn’t anticipate. It’s a living process – we are trying to hand over our ideas and input and then see. It gives you the possibility to step back and discover new dimensions. We have this dialogue. invent these productions and involve every collaborator. It’s fun! And when you have singers like Camilla – singers can do so much nowadays, they are so keen, they want to know, they want to play, they want to be asked.
Often in opera, because it's so hierachical, you have a huge responsibility - and maybe it makes it easier if there are two of you, because you can afford to rely on the other and we find out together how to go on. This takes away a lot of stress, because the institution assumes you know what you want and it can be a difficult dynamic in opera theatre.
SS: A lot of people have a similar relationship with their set designer and consult them about what they think SM: The stage designer created a space from which this world can unfold. We take the risk, even if we don’t know how it will unfold – it’s about process and it’s much more productive when you don’t know from the very beginning what you want to see. You start and you have long discussions; it’s important to have very specific fixed points and start around those. It’s so beautiful when the conductor, the singers, everyone is really working together and it’s not this power game...
JD: Audiences in some European countries, especially Germany and Austria, have come to expect productions that shock and challenge, whereas Americans tend to prefer traditional narrative stagings. Do you worry about how this production is going to go over here in the UK, which is kind of in the middle?
SM: It’s hard to say, but of course I hope that the audience will see that no one of the singers is forced to do something awkward, but that they really play with huge intensity. So even if it’s unexpected or even disturbing in some moments, my hope is that nobody can really resist the presence of the singers and the commitment that they have.
SS: There's nothing gratuitous about it.
JD: If you were speaking to someone who's never seen Rusalka before, how would you persuade them to come and see it?
SM: It’s not the answer to your question, but we try to work in a way that everyone, even someone who doesn’t know anything about the opera or the story, is able to step in and understand it. So it's not that we are simplifying – on the contrary, the more colour and detail, the more concrete it is. We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations. One hopes one can seduce even people who know the opera in another production to experience it anew. I would say it’s a very sad, modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music – not just the Song to the Moon which everyone knows but a lot of pieces everyone should know...It’s an incredibly colourful score, but permeated by this deep, deep sadness and all the folk elements – it brings together a lot of different musical styles.
JD: It strikes me that there’s a lot of Wagner in there.
SM: That’s true – Alberich and the Rhinemaidens and some of the sounds and styles are melded in Dvorak's own style.
JD: And here’s an opera where the heroine is mute for most of the 2nd act!
SM: Yes, that’s funny! It's an amazing risk to take – she doesn’t sing for half an hour and then this amazing aria bursts out of her. But you’ll see how Camilla is moving this whole second act – it’s so touching. And in the first act we think we need the love duet, but it never happens, Rusalka doesn’t join in! That's quite daring.
JD: Do you like working with Yannick Nezet-Seguin?
SM: I’m very happy he is conducting. When we did this in 2008 in Salzburg, he was there conducting Romeo and Juliet, and it’s a nice coincidence we are brought together now in this opera.
JD: Is it possible to quantify why the working relationship is so strong between you and Jossi?
SM: He was already an established theatre director when then he was asked by the artistic manager of the Stuttgart Opera to direct opera. He hesitated, he loves classical music and opera, but he thought it’s not his profession – and so we came together and started to do our first production, I as dramaturg and he as director, and it developed its own dynamic. After our third production - it was Alcina by Handel, it was invited to the Edinbuirgh Festival for several performances around 2000 or 01 - we started to stage things together. I am coming more from the dramaturgical approach, but what we share is an analytical passion, so Jossi for the 'soul and being' and me for dramaturgy, text and literature. Of course we change, sometimes he is leading, sometimes I can take over and show a direction, but we can hardly say who had which idea. It comes out of the dialogue - but that’s his great quality, that he lets it be. It’s great serenity. We are now at the Stuttgart Opera and we had a wonderful La Sonnambula premiere last Sunday. It’s fantastic because normally in opera you can’t choose - you are asked whether or not you want to stage a particular opera - but now we can decide ourselves.