Opera Australia this year presents Dvorak’s Rusalka, a work rarely staged in this country and a welcome departure from the standard Italian or German repertoire. A solid, not to say hefty work, it plays for three and a half hours, with two twenty minute intervals thrown in, and is performed in the original Czech, with English surtitles.
Rusalka, a water nymph, falls in love with a prince, bargains with a witch to become human to live with her man, does so on condition of being mute, is spurned by him, then later sees him return to her. This story, with its sources in Czech legend and other fairy tales, seems another example of the nineteenth century’s fascination with spirits, thwarted love, and acceptance of an unhappy fate, something like Swan Lake or Giselle, an unworldly yet moving piece of romantic tragedy far removed from realism or our modern age.
However a number of factors work against Rusalka’s complete success. The score contains rather less of the composer’s famous gift for melody and lyricism than was wished or expected, and its best known aria, the beautiful O silver moon, is not typical of the whole work, much of it somewhat pedestrian recitative. To my mind, the opera is also just too long, and both the second and third acts could profitably be shortened. The relatively simple story has been stretched and weakened by an over-expansive score, and a train of consequences follows. The chorus, for instance, used only for part of the second act in a scene that does not, dramatically, require its presence, must then be given lengthy choreographic activity during the instrumental sections. All of this, while well performed, tries one’s patience.
More seriously, the set is composed of a series of blocks of ice, around which a strange assortment of costumes must circulate. Yes of course the ice symbolizes the coolness and frigidity of the nymph and her inevitable failure to realize warm-blooded human passion, but pragmatically these blocks just get in the way of, and render implausible, many dramatic moments. Costumes vary widely, many ill-matched to the character, the period or a consistently attempted atmosphere.
Rusalka herself wears a kind of camisole and corset for much of the time, a garment fitting - one would have thought - neither a nymph nor the nineteenth century, but her Prince is garbed in clothes straight out of The Merry Widow, stalwart hunting or regal robes. The Foreign Princess, with whom the Prince has a brief dalliance, is given a blazing red bustle dress from the 1880’s, and the character, supposedly a free-acting sensualist in contrast with Rusalka’s chilly charms, dwindles to a haughty, imperious dowager, defined and restricted by her outfit.
Given the work’s lengthy instrumental sections, choreography becomes an urgent matter, both in choral passages and individual scenes. Great attention has been paid to keeping the stage alive, and this component is, on the whole, a success. It is a question, however, whether the 60s disco movements by the trio in Act I are all that suitable, indeed they add a flippant, distracting effect that could have been dispensed with.
Now to the strengths of the evening. Sally Matthews, in the title role, has mastered to precision the art of passing in an instant from beautiful singing to vivid and expressive movement, and she contributes unflagging skill, consistency and conviction to a demanding role. There is something slightly perverse in a character who must remain silent for much of the time (in an opera too), but this performer makes the most of every moment, whether singing or mute. Her abilities are well-matched by the fine voices of Julian Gavin (Prince), Bruce Martin (Water Sprite), Elizabeth Whitehouse (Foreign Princess) and Milijana Nikolic (Jezibaba the Witch). Nevertheless, even amongst this justified praise, disquieting thoughts arise. Why, for instance, was Jezibaba directed as a research scientist from the 1960s, white lab coat, hypodermic needle, mad glint and all? Though well sung and acted, this character and her acolytes have no discernible relation to the world of water nymphs or the 1880s, suggested by both the story and much of the rest of the production. Such decisions, which send the mind in odd and useless directions, make this production far less involving than its performances would suggest.
Stylistic inconsistencies and mis-judgements thus seriously damage this Rusalka, partially rescued by fine orchestral playing and a supremely skilled and committed cast.
Opera Australia presents
An Opera North (UK) Production
Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre
Evenings at 7.30pm – April 26, 28; May 2, 8
Matinee at 1.00pm – May 5
Duration: 3 hours and 20 minutes with two 20-minute intervals
Free Opera Talks: May 5 & 8 – 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $50-$210 | A children’s price of $40-$44 is available for all performances
Bookings: Ticketmaster on 1300 136 166, Arts Centre box office or www.opera-australia.org.au