I’m all for cats at the opera. Toy ones, giant ones, glove puppets, real ones (well, maybe not – they’re not renowned for doing as they’re told) – a fuzzy feline will always raise a smile. But isn’t there something alarming about it when a mermaid meets one? We all know what cats do to fish. It looks as if that might happen to the unfortunate Rusalka, the eponymous heroine of Dvorák’s post-Wagnerian take on The Little Mermaid, in the opera’s first-ever production at the Royal Opera House.
Rusalka is a grand-scale epic, a seriously dark fairy tale, its ending notable for its bleak lack of redemption. A co-production with the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden’s staging is headed by the long-established directorial duo of Yossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, with Samantha Seymour as revival director. They have clearly been having some fun transforming Dvorák’s bizarrely neglected masterpiece for the age of postmodern regietheater, or ‘director’s opera’. And, filled as it is with Freudian subtexts and timeless mythical symbols, Rusalka must be an absolute peach of a job.
I meet Morabito and Seymour at the end of a long rehearsal day on the set at the ROH. Bright, surreal couches are in view: in their interpretation, the last act takes place in a type of brothel – an American-style one, Seymour assures me. A glance at photographs of other scenes reveals a lavish wedding dress for Rusalka, a dishevelled witch in pop-socks, large and threatening crosses, a lot of blood – and a giant cat, played by a dancer. In this opera the human world has much the effect on the supernatural side of Rusalka that the cat would have upon the fish tail.
“Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid,” says Morabito. “We are trying to go with that and to be playful with it. We decided, together with the designer, not to have a naturalistic setting in a wood, but still to try to evoke a summer night’s dream atmosphere, which is a part of the score that you can’t just ignore.” The physical sets are complemented by film projections, which apparently include a jellyfish floating past during Rusalka’s famous ‘Song to the Moon’.
Controversy is still king in opera in Germany and Austria; regietheater holds strong sway. Typically, responses to this production’s unveiling in Salzburg in 2008 were polarised. “Wieler and Morabito tell Rusalka as a gripping narrative of magic realism with every theatrical means at their disposal...heart-rending yet oddly exhilarating,” said one UK reviewer. But a critic from the US, where tastes are generally more conservative, objected to a production he termed “ugly in mind, spirit and soul.” London audiences must make up their own minds.
It seems odd that Rusalka – based on a universally known story and written by a composer whose Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ is the ultimate popular classic – should be new to the UK’s leading opera house. Perhaps its sinister qualities and tragic conclusion have proved daunting; or perhaps it is too derivative of Wagner (the opening, starring three nymphs and a water goblin, parallels Das Rheingold, while the final scene has something in common with Tristan und Isolde). Then there’s the awkwardness of singing in Czech. And there’s the paradox that the heroine, struck mute by the witch, sings not one note for half of the second act.
There could be another strand to its long absence from international stages. Fairy tales are dark by nature: the more alarming their imagery, on the whole, the better they address our psychological depths. Many adaptations try to neutralise this bite and replace it with cutesiness. But in Rusalka, Dvorák, writing in 1900, did exactly the opposite. Andersen’s already pain-filled The Little Mermaid is only its starting point.
His nameless Prince is a defiant, screwed-up wastrel who betrays Rusalka with ease, before going mad with grief. Rusalka herself journeys from young, infatuated girl to passionate woman suffering horribly for the sake of love; from there she becomes a supernatural sprite, denied rest or salvation for eternity, her only mission to lure men to their deaths. Jezibaba the witch is vicious and cruel in the extreme, complete with that sidekick cat, who is in the text.
“The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat: it is funny that this fishwoman loves a toy cat,” says Morabito. “Then in the scene with the witch, it transforms into a cruel monster which transforms her and gives her legs instead of her fish tail.” Seymour adds: “It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and is horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her.” But in act III, says Morabito, when the foresaken Rusalka goes back to Jezibaba in the brothel, “there is a cat sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is trapped and she commits suicide.”
In Dvorák, there is no suicide. Morabito and his team have Rusalka kill herself rather than face a degrading life; thus they transform her into an ‘undead’ vampiric figure – a concept far from out of place in the legends of eastern Europe. There is nothing gratuitous about this interpretation, Morabito insists: “We always develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and musical text. Here it was a question of achieving a very careful balance.”
Ultimately, he adds, Rusalka is “a modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music. It’s an incredibly colourful score, permeated by a deep sadness. Dvorák takes elements of Czech folk music and a strong influence from Wagner, then melds them together in his characteristic style.” What would he say to those who, like that American critic, just want a traditional fairy-tale, with mermaids, wood nymphs and visual enchantment? “We have them!” he insists. “We have mermaids. We have a giant cat...”
Rusalka opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 27 February. Camilla Nylund stars as the eponymous heroine and Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Box office: 020 7304 4000