Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rusalka's song to...her toy cat?

Music: ****
Production: **

As I said, I'm all for cats at the opera. The opening night of Rusalka at Covent Garden was graced by a very schmoozy pushkin - a real one, apparently named Girlie - which lounged on the sofa next to Jezibaba in the last act and was stroked and cuddled whenever possible before trotting off mid-scene. It looked quite happy, as if basking beside a witch on a plastic couch above an orchestra of 90 or so was all in a day's work. (Solti is jealous and says he'd like the role next time, please, and would moreover add value by joining in the singing.)

Here is Covent Garden's resident Great Dane, Kasper Holten - head of opera - to introduce a dark tale that is essentially based on Hans Christian Andersen...

The cat looked a lot happier than much of the audience, which didn't appear to get on with Wieler and Morabito's zany modern production. It had its moments: the projections of water-lilies, floating blossoms, outsize carp and jellyfish - the latter's shape attractively echoed later by the shadow of the chandelier - were imaginative and added some much-needed images of nature to a work whose music is steeped in Bohemia's woods and forests, but that on this stage otherwise bore little trace of them.

Cats are everywhere, though. Rusalka - pinned down by her mermaid tail and forced to drag herself along the floor of the Nymphheim (they have sofas and lamps under the lake) - takes comfort in a toy feline, with which the wood nymphs tease her and to which she addresses her Song to the Moon. Jezibaba's cat effects her transformation into semi-human - expanded to dancer-size and mauling the fish tail as you'd expect, plus some (Girlie appears only in Act III).

Sadly, there's a serious divide between what you see and what you hear. In a work that is all heart, warmth and soul, visually there was...well, none. This got in the way. Musically, but for a few opening-night rough edges in the pit - the trumpets are sometimes too loud - it was inspiring. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, making his Covent Garden debut, was the hero of the evening, capturing all of Dvorak's wonder, intensity and sensuality: the music sprang to warm and vibrant life, each of its beauties more breathtaking than the last. The cast, headed by Camilla Nylund as a passionate Rusalka turned to ice by humankind, was mainly strong: Petra Lang is luxury casting for the Foreign Princess, and Alan Held bowled out magnetic power and disillusionment as Vodnik, though in the Prince's open-hearted, lyrical moments Bryan Hymel's tone did not quite meet the music on its own terms.

But the production's problems run deeper: the character development seems woefully one-dimensional. It's difficult to believe in the love of Rusalka and the Prince, whose efforts to be neurotic were confined to the Huntsman removing his gun from him in Act I. Vodnik is a washed-up alcoholic, Jezibaba (Agnes Zwierko) a pill-popping bag lady/brothel madame. None "came off the page", however well they sang. And really...if Rusalka has just explained that she can "neither live nor die", how come she bothers to stab herself? We know that she is not a mortal and, more to the point, so does she. And for the ending to leave one utterly unmoved - that can't be a good thing.

It's a very long evening, full of musical wonders, but it felt enervating rather than uplifting. If such a fine performance of Dvorak's marvellous score drags one down to that degree, the production has much to answer for. There were boos. Offset by cheering, natch, but the quantity of the former was somewhat noticeable.

[UPDATE, WEDNESDAY MORNING - the ensuing critical fallout over this production actually deserves a post to itself...]