Cher Public

The sprite in you

Yesterday’s first half of the Rusalka video overview took us from literalism toward Regietheater. Today’s conclusion, covering filmed performances of Dvorák’s opera since 2010, charts the progression in reverse.  

For his 2010 Munich production, Martin Kusej took inspiration from then-recent headlines: the ordeal of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who from 1984 until 2008 had been imprisoned, raped, and seven times impregnated by her father. Kusej’s watery realm is a flooded basement. Rusalka’s many fellow captives vary in age from adults to a grotesquely tarted-up little girl.

The Water Goblin wears a bathrobe over sweatpants and a stained wife-beater, and the singer resembles a younger, fitter Josef Fritzl. The Goblin’s basement visits are exciting occasions for the women and girls; he is their entire world. They have been brainwashed into believing they are fantastic creatures in a magical place, but they instinctively recoil at the worst of the abuse.

Familiar lines have bitter irony, as when the Goblin cautions Rusalka that human beings in the world beyond are “full of sin.” Rusalka addresses her moon song to a globe-shaped lighting fixture. The Goblin’s wife, Jezibaba, living above in the “woods” (kitschy living-room wallpaper), is both cowed and complicit, victim and victimizer. She fortifies her courage with alcohol when she must play a part in the fraudulence and come face to face with what is usually out of her sight.

There is terrible power in a young woman begging a “witch” for things she already has. Jezibaba’s magic consists of pouring alcohol down Rusalka’s throat and putting her in a floral dress, a barrette, and painful red heels. This echoes an earlier scene in which the Goblin had forced Rusalka into a shiny party dress, and anticipates a later one in which the Prince forces her into a wedding gown. The Prince unwittingly reinforces Jezibaba’s deception: when Rusalka shakes off the uncomfortable shoes and the barrette, her puts them back on her.

Out in the world, the damaged, sexually unresponsive Rusalka lacks even the identity assigned her in the Goblin’s role play. She had sung in the first act about human souls filled with love, but she encounters nothing of the kind. “Deliver us from evil!” she hears the Gamekeeper cry as he molests his niece, the Turnspit (future newsmaker Tara Erraught).

The Turnspit, a nasty little person in the making, represents another response to victimization. She sneers at Rusalka’s attempt to make friends, and contemptuously wipes her hands on Rusalka’s dress. The Prince and the spiteful Foreign Princess have mechanical, fully clothed sex against a wall. The ballet is a nightmare of gowned brides (female and male) clutching and fondling dead deer.

Kusej is frank about the complicated feelings incest survivors may have for their victimizers. By the middle of the second act, the heroine’s thoughts of her former captor are nearly nostalgic, and she climbs into an aquarium. “No one in the world can give you what the watery realm abounds in,” the Goblin sings when he reappears in Rusalka’s cheerless new home, perhaps only as a voice in Rusalka’s mind. At least in the basement, she was special.

Even in the modern world, there is hysterical superstition–recall the 2012 apocalyptic blather–but this modern-world production is weakest when people from outside the Goblin’s house discuss curses and supernatural matters. The Act Three visit of the Gamekeeper and Turnspit to the house is necessary, as ensuing events bring the Goblin and Jezibaba to justice and liberate their prisoners, but the scene remains problematic.

However, of all six productions covered, this one makes the most of the Act Three scene for the Wood Nymphs, which can seem musically attractive padding. The treatment of the trio as sad mental patients, clinging to delusions of extraordinary abilities and extraordinary beauty, is a poignant inspiration.

Kristine Opolais asked to be released from what was to have been her Met debut (Musetta) to step into this Rusalka when Nina Stemme withdrew. The decision proved wise: it was a star-making opportunity. Opolais’s voice, cooler and narrower than Renée Fleming‘s, and under nothing like Fleming’s or Gabriela Benacková‘s technical command, nevertheless had luster and float to it. I have not heard her sound this attractive in her Covent Garden/Met years.

Opolais considers herself an actress as much as or more than a singer, and she responds to Kusej’s direction with a courageous, detailed performance. As the murderous, institutionalized Rusalka of the final scene, she is by turns calculating, frighteningly evil, triumphant to the point of gloating, but then horrified, distraught, catatonic. It is a bravura display.

The singing of her Prince, Klaus Florian Vogt, is “fine” as that word would be applied to thread and to jewelry. The sound is not that of the traditional heldentenor but is of exquisite quality, shrewdly managed. Günther Groissböck has as difficult a job as Opolais does, and goes along with stage business many singers would have wanted no part of. Both his beautiful singing and his charismatic presence are more than this Goblin deserves, which may be the point.

Janina Baechle has the measure of a complex Jezibaba: worn down, tormented, but capable of terrible violence herself. A mezzo rather than soprano Foreign Princess, Nadia Krasteva summons powerful vocal gusts and makes of the role the glamorous star turn it can be but usually is not.

Tomas Hanus leads with a good feel for Czech speech rhythms, and there is much to praise (I liked his whip-cracking treatment of the first scene), but his is the driest, least lush and “romantic” reading of any of these performances.

The production is riveting on its terms, full of committed work from a uniformly strong cast, but not a Rusalka I often return to or want to see again with other singers. This is not a reaction against the lurid slant on the material. It plays like an auteur-driven European film (think Dogtooth), to be seen once. Kusej found unusual possibilities and correspondences and arranged them into a rigorous diagram. For all the intelligent detail, the two productions discussed on either side of this one leave us more to wonder about. It hints at both the strength and weakness of Kusej’s Rusalka that my notes on it read like material for a clinical case study.

Viewers open to Regietheater but put off by the squalor of the above may find a corrective in Stefan Herheim‘s La Monnaie production, new in 2008 and filmed in a 2012 revival. Although its primary setting is an intersection in a rough part of some modern European city, perhaps Brussels, it is dazzling to behold: saturated with color, lively in movement, with a wondrous cinematic set by Heike Scheele.

By the end, we feel we have spent time in this place and could find our way around in it, as in some classic Hollywood films. However, the production’s content and style made me think of very different films: Ingmar Bergman‘s grim From the Life of the Marionettes, a little of David Lynch at his most fractured (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire).

Herheim, still a young director today, has been working long enough that I suppose we can speak of his “early” and “later” work. This Rusalka may surprise fans who came to him via something more recent, such as La bohème, Les vêpres siciliennes, Meistersinger or Pikovaya Dama. The Rusalka is wilder, less focused, like three different conceptual productions running simultaneously. The effect is of inspired, meticulously planned chaos.

Inspired chaos is challenging to describe even in an article entirely about it, but the story with which the production begins and ends is clear enough. The central figure is not Rusalka but the Water Goblin, a middle-aged businessman (pimp?) living unhappily with Mrs. Water Goblin in an apartment overlooking a busy street.

The Goblin is fascinated by a prostitute, Rusalka. Jezibaba is a grubby street person who sells flowers. The neighborhood’s focal point is a diner operating under the name of Solaris by day, Lunatic by night. When the Goblin’s marriage ends in violent tragedy, other characters stop to gawk for a minute before going on with their lives.

Those facts are the through line. What happens in the vast middle of the production takes us in many directions, and little can be taken at face value. Rusalka is smitten with a young sailor, the Prince. The “humanity” to which she aspires is the bourgeois domesticity the Goblin has. The Goblin discourages her from leaving her “sisters” (other prostitutes) in “nature” (the streets) because he regrets the way his own life has turned out. But the closing scene suggests Rusalka never, in fact, aspired to any new life, or if her conversation with the Goblin did happen, she never acted on it.

A good deal of what takes place between the opening and closing may be understood as the imaginings of an unreliable narrator, the Goblin. He is so central that at points when Dvorák and Kvapil made him an unseen character, an offstage voice, Herheim makes him the only seen character. Rusalka herself is more symbolic and more elusive than ever.

Another director might have squeezed a whole production out of what is set up with the prostitute and the sad middle-aged man. Herheim is hunting bigger and more varied game. He also explores gender roles via repeating costumes, as Robert Carsen had: every female character is Woman; every male character is Man. The Prince is a younger version of the Goblin, and the older one shadows and mimics the younger.

There is an imaginative and rather heartbreaking sequence in which Herheim pairs four singer-actors, Rusalka/Goblin and Prince/Foreign Princess (Mrs. Goblin), to show us intimate partnership in two stages, the passionate excitement at the start and the tedium and discord of much later. Are we observing two relationships, one relationship, or does it matter?

Herheim also comments on the artificiality and the compelling power of opera. An onstage advertising kiosk displays a poster for the production. The Prince and the Foreign Princess watch some of the second act from a box and consult their programs. Rusalka plays diva despair to the hilt and stabs herself grandly, and then reveals with a laugh that the prop knife has not harmed her. Other characters seemingly die but return uninjured for later scenes. A female principal appears in a bloodied dress, without explanation, and it foreshadows the production’s troubling denouement like a premonitory dream.

I have not even mentioned the Water Goblin’s brief turn as Neptune, conducting the revelry of aquatic creatures with his trident but losing control of it (Herheim would return to this idea with the fairy-tale creatures in the Meistersinger melee). As confetti falls on the audience, this festival becomes an orgy that spills into the aisles. That is the sort of production it is: the splashy, auditorium-filling coup de théâtre pictured on the DVD’s cover is almost incidental.

Willard White had long experience as the Water Goblin (he sang it 40 years ago to the Rusalka of Teresa Stratas), and this Rusalka needed a singing actor of his majestic presence to pull it together. White rarely leaves the stage, and it is the kind of performance one wants to call career-crowning. Some vocal power is gone, but nothing else is. Right from the staged prelude, one is reminded he was a good enough actor to hold the stage as Othello opposite Ian McKellen‘s Iago.

The balance of the cast is not one of the best in this survey for quality of voices, but the singers perform as though they know they are taking part in something special. Myrtò Papatanasiu brings an unusual voice to an unusual Rusalka, a mature tone with a touch of acid and a beat under pressure, but potent high notes. She and young Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch (occasionally strained) are affecting in their final scene, both for the sincerity of their work and because the production’s strands begin to come together.

The delicacy of Adám Fischer‘s conducting of La Monnaie’s orchestra, with phrases seemingly conjured and carried on breaths, is an effective counter to the big show being accompanied. The performing edition takes some cuts, conspicuously the Act Three scene for Gamekeeper and Turnspit.

Herheim’s Rusalka is best understood as a “fantasy” in both senses of the word: an imaginative exercise in the improbable or impossible, which Rusalka always was, and a free-form variation on an existing work. It is surprising, cryptic, undisciplined, musical, emotionally affecting in peculiar ways, and clearly the work of someone with vision and great gifts.

About Rusalka itself, I wrote in my introduction yesterday that its score does not give up all its secrets immediately. In that respect, Herheim’s production is worthy of it. The last note I took was “When the sun comes up, we have to stop being lunatics, and there is never really a prince.” I do not know what I intended to make of that observation, but left verbatim, that about sums it up.

Having been through Pountney’s geometry, Carsen’s algebra, Kusej’s trigonometry and Herheim’s calculus, we return to basic arithmetic. The traditional Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production was filmed in its final Metropolitan Opera revival in 2014. First seen at the Met in 1993, it had premiered in Vienna in 1987 and was substantially the same as the duo’s 1981 Munich Rusalka.

Even a fan of the lavish, illustrative approach taken here may wish the filming had been done at an earlier point in the production’s history. This is not a dislikable performance, but it is an impersonal one. This stands out less when it is seen in isolation than it does following a few Rusalkas that, whatever flaws and challenges they presented, were full of individuality.

From the Met, we get a display of operatic professionalism, canny instincts rather than questing intelligence. If you get old sets and costumes out of storage, skilled people such as these will come to town, rehearse a little and put a show on. Nothing much will go wrong; nothing much will be discovered.

Schneider-Siemssen’s sets, lit with discretion, were older than the professional careers of most of the singers. Limited rehearsal time keeps anything much from happening on those sets beyond a visual aid with the music. Singers in theme-restaurant costumes step into three-dimensional realizations of sketches from the 1980s, strike poses, flag the big moments for the people sitting up high. Seen in close-up, it has a big-house fatuousness about it. If you look away from the screen for a while, you only miss more of the same.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is not in on the routine, and gets a glamorous and powerful reading from the Met’s orchestra. He has an appealing group of singers, well matched to their assignments in temperament and vocal endowment: Fleming again (bidding farewell to a favorite role), Emily Magee, Dolora Zajick, Piotr Beczala, John Relyea.

Fleming’s sound is less plush and rich than in the 2002 Paris production, and Zajick’s middle does not project as strongly as it had in her best years, but these women knew how to sing, sounded good for a long time and still had more than enough in 2014. Their seniority is not what makes the release comparatively underwhelming.

If any cast member emerges with great credit, it is Beczala. This Prince does not find him in best voice–a rasp in the tone hints at a mild winter illness and/or a heavy workload–and his acting is just star-tenor standard. But there is a bighearted generosity in his embrace of music and character that can only be called winning (literally–he seems the audience’s favorite in the ovations). More than anyone else, he seems to be living up there. This is the good kind of “old-fashioned,” the kind that is always welcome.

Of the six performances covered, only the Pountney seems to me entirely uncompetitive now. The Weigl film has strong appeal within its strictures, and the Schenk has musical merits and may scratch some nostalgic itch. The challenging Kusej should be seen once, the equally challenging Herheim more than once. But I have no difficulty designating the Carsen, a well-balanced production that has stood the test of time, catch of the day.

Photo: Ken Howard

  • PCally

    LOVE the Kusej so much and Opolais is amazing as it Vogt. That production and the Carsen do so much more with the prince than is often the case. I try with Herheim but I just am not there yet, I don’t really know why. I’ve never really been able to connect most of his work (and I have seen a couple of productions live) but I’ll just have to keep at it. The met production is hokey and Fleming is really sub par imo but the overall musical performance is pretty stellar. This opera is spectacularly well served on DVD.

    • I liked the Herheim in Brussels. It made sense.

  • PATRICK MACK

    The phrase ‘theme restaurant costumes’ will now join the pantheon and I shall be stealing it forthwith. Hilarious.

    I saw the Met revival in the theaters and Beczala, who I thought did a good job with a role that was one-fach too large for him at points, cracked wide open on the top ‘c’ in the last scene. It was heartbreaking for everyone watching.

    Not only did they film a make-up session for that before the commercial release but they masked some trouble Renee was having with the back of her wig in the final scene which was wildly irritating (the wig was sticking straight up in the back because she’d had her clingy sleeves over her head at her entrance from the pond). It’s the little things.

    I’m tempted to try the Hernheim now I must say.
    Great job as always Porgy.

    • La Cieca

      A taste of the Herheim -- a different performance from the one that was filmed, but giving an idea of what a whole scene is like.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS8Jsa797QQ

      • Porgy Amor

        Herheim’s has had some great Water Goblins in various theaters. I know of performances with White (the one I wrote about), Groissböck (the one above), and Zeppenfeld.

    • Porgy Amor

      Many of those Met HDs, when they make it to PBS and (where applicable) DVD/Blu-ray, have fix-ups from the scratch tape. Beczala’s splatter on the Prince’s “C,” as you note; part of Garanca’s wig coming off in Alagna’s hand with her mantilla and peineta; one of Maestri’s sideburns coming unglued and hanging precariously during the final scene of Falstaff; a blooper in Faust when Pape’s devil caused a sword to snap, and the prop sword’s breaking was mistimed.

      Sometimes the vocal performances are improved too, as much as can be done. I have not seen it, because it is not a performance I would want to revisit, but I have been told that people who saw the 2012 Traviata on PBS or in summer encores got a better impression of Dessay’s struggling Violetta than what the live crowd heard. I do have the DVD of the Carmen, and I remember Alagna having difficulty in the Flower Song, now not in evidence.

  • Ivy Lin

    Great essay Porgy. I have to say that having seen the Kusej and the Herheim versions I find that the Kusej bears repeated viewing and gets more poignant each time, whereas the Herheim seems too slick and cute by half. It’s as if he’s trying to constantly say, “See? How clever” whereas the Kusej cuts to the heart of the story in a way that no other production does.

    But Herheim’s sense of aesthetics is almost unparalleled among directors working today. He consistently manages to make the most deconstructionist version of works look amazingly beautiful.

  • Królowa Roger

    I have to agree with viewing the Kusej once. While other versions elect to traverse a traditional story arc and ultimately moralize about changing oneself for the love of another, this version’s message is immediately clear and stagnant from beginning to end: sexual and mental abuse is horrible and ruins lives. That being said, I still found it quite engaging, even devastating.

  • Porgy Amor

    Some irreverence I devised while working on this entry.

    https://goo.gl/XZm44F

  • steveac10

    So the Met as posted the program for Rusalka and the Games Keeper is………. well past his prime Brit Alan Opie (who is also Arbace later this season!). The man is 70+ and was never really all that great to begin with -- but for some reason the Fiend has decided to foist him on us on a regular basis for the last few years. Is this really the best they can do?

    • Rick

      Well, for the gamekeeper -- which I believe is often seen as a comic part and can as effectively be sung by a baritone as by a tenor -- Mr Opie might be OK (although there are probably lots of other singers who could do better or as well) -- but use an older baritone (who was more properly cast as Baron Zeta) for what is a tenor part (Arbace) with long and intricate tenor arias? Somewhat bizarre.

      • Armerjacquino

        It’s a bit zwischenfach isn’t it? Nucci and Hampson have both recorded it.

        • Rick

          Not the way it is written -- but I think there has been some tradition in giving the part to a lower voice (according to Wikipedia, even Kurt Böhme sang it….), probably to have more vocal contrast, not least if Idamante is also sung by a tenor.

  • Porgy: I’ve been away and am catching up with my parterre reading. I don’t know what I love more, your intelligent observations or your way with words. I’ve only seen two of these productions — the Schenk and the Kusej. I agree with your assessments of both. I found the Kusej difficult to watch not only for its brutality but also because I felt I was being hit over the head. But I do admire the rigour with which it is executed. I got a bit dizzy reading about the Herheim (though now I will check out the more recent production with La Cieca has linked in the comments). Even before your final recommendation, the Carsen struck as by far the one I’d be most interested in.