Dvorak - Rusalka

La Monnaie, Sunday December 9 2008

Conductor: Adam Fischer. Production: Stefan Herheim. Sets: Heike Scheele. Costumes: Gesine Völlm. Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel. Video: fettFilm Berlin. Rusalka: Michaela Kaune. Prince: Ludovit Ludha. Sprite: Frode Olsen. Jezibaba: Livia Budai. Foreign Princess: Anda-Louise Bogza. Hunter/Priest: Julian Hubbard. Wood Nymphs: Olesya Golovneva, YoungHee Kim, Nona Javakhidze. La Monnaie Chorus and Symphony Orchestra.

Stefan Herheim’s Rusalka, in Brussels, must be one of the busiest productions I’ve ever seen.

The curtain rose on a set that was, by today’s standards, unusually realistic: a Brussels street corner: typical Brussels-style, cocoa-coloured brick houses with tall, narrow doors and windows, wrought iron balconies and satellite dishes; a 50s ice cream parlour to the left, topped with a cone and a neon sign; a graffiti’d metro entrance with a flower seller; a neo-gothic church with a rose window; a tall weeping willow, a column displaying posters and, on the right, a shop window. For several minutes, to no music but with recorded sound effects (rain, traffic, footsteps, a dog barking…) the citizens of Brussels rushed home from work in pouring rain. It could have been the set of a musical.

But the realism was deceptive and short-lived.

Herheim’s underlying concept was to play Rusalka as a study of male fantasies about women. At the start of the opera we see a middle-aged Brussels bourgeois involved in an altercation with a prostitute lounging, in silver leather, at the corner. His wife sees this from the balcony and throws him out, but eventually, after a further spat, lets him back in. From then on, the opera is played as the man’s dream/nightmare. He is in fact the Sprite and the prostitute is Rusalka, aspiring to a normal life. Once this is established, the whole thing turns wild. No need for the bourgeois/sprite to go into the ice cream parlour: the doors open, the whole interior slides out centre stage, and the three wood nymphs (in brightly-coloured 60s dresses) perform a near-Bacchanalian trio while the bar stools rise and fall like pistons, the rose window spins and inflatable dolls dance wildly in what has become a sex-shop window.

By night, the neon sign says “Lunatic,” by day it changes to “Solaris.” The satellite dishes are the moon for the famous song. The flower seller (a procureuse, apparently) is Jezibaba and her metro entrance is transformed into a flower shop. The prince is at first a sailor, later a guy in pyjamas the same as the Sprite’s, later still a sashed dignitary, the hunter a hippie smoking a joint on a balcony, the ladies’ chorus a chorus of whores in foam fat-suits and naughty underwear. The wedding feast is a carnival inspired explicitly (there's a poster of it on the column) by Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels, the former sex-shop now sells bridal gowns (later it will be a butcher's shop, with sides of beef hanging in the window where the inflatable dolls danced earlier) and the ladies of the chorus now have nuns’ habits over their fat-suits and frillies. Walls spin, giant mirrors advance and move back again, Rusalka descends on a glittering crescent moon (when it works: on Sunday it came to a juddering halt) as the Virgin Mary, clutching a pulsating heart to her breast, and at the height of the carnival the house lights and chandelier flicker and the audience is showered with red tinsel confetti.

It is very nearly, as the FT critic said, exhausting, though perfectly legible and coherent. The only weaknesses were perhaps a little under-rehearsal of the chorus (or perhaps they were just embarrassed at the antics they had to get up to) and a certain corniness in some of the ideas: lascvious nuns have surely been done to death by now.

With the main cast, including Olga Guryakova and Willard White, it must have been quite an event. Unfortunately, we had cast 2, and it showed. Michaela Kaune made some beautiful sounds but her voice was disconcertingly uneven, now strong, now barely audible. Ludovit Ludha was a sometimes comically provincial-sounding tenor. Frode Olsen was underpowered and uncharismatic. Livia Budai was charismatic enough, but her singing is now much like Anja Silja's. Anda-Louise Bogza was perhaps up to first-cast standards: her voice was more than generous and she seemed happy to make it clear by belting it out.

So, musically a rather weak afternoon, but - though it didn't suit those hoping for a fairy-tale staging, as many made clear at the interval by leaving - a very entertaining production.


  1. The problem of this staging of Rusalka is not the weak singers but the idea itself. They were may be not the best but they manage their parts quite well. The shocking experience for me was the mystiphication and the attempt to separate the text from what we can see on the stage. It might have been acceptable to those who do not understand Czech or do not know the libretto. It was too much to had to leave during the first interval for the first time in my life.

  2. First of many, probably. Such is opera.


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