Cher Public

Under water

Rusalka and her sisters are huddled in the flooded basement. They are dressed up in sparkly gowns and heavily made up, and of varying ages. Dvorak’s folk-tinged chorus for the water-maidens becomes their chorus of fear, as the father (Water Goblin) enters the basement, and the girls tremble nervously at who he will “pick.” Only Rusalka does not move. She lies motionless on the couch, as longtime victims of abuse will sometimes do, already anticipating the worst.

In 2008, authorities in Austria discovered a horrifying case of child abuse and incest in the home of Josef Fritzl. For 24 years, he had held his daughter Elisabeth captive in a basement. The father and daughter had an incestuous relationship that resulted in the birth of seven children. Fritzl’s wife and Elisabeth’s mother had apparently been compliant and raised some of the children as her own.

The whole case could have made the basis of its own opera, but director Martin Kusej decided to make the Fritzl family tragedy the inspiration for his production of Rusalka, filmed at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in 2010. The classic “little mermaid” fairy tale has become a dark allegory about child abuse.

Rusalka’s father is dressed in a filthy wifebeater, a blue bathrobe, and track pants, and smokes a cigarette. He has his way with her before she sings the famous “Song to the Moon.” The “moon” is a bright lamp in the basement — the only light Rusalka is allowed to see. In this case, the aria not only a symbolic fairy tale figure’s longing for love, it becomes a desperate girl’s paean to freedom.

When Jezibaba finally grants Rusalka her freedom into the “human” world, she cruelly puts her daughter in trashy-looking red stilettos that Rusalka is unable to walk in. She’s mute as well. Her first real encounter with the Prince is also violent: he’s holding a hunting rifle. She stares at him blankly as he puts her stilettos back on and carries her offstage. Rusalka has traded one unhappiness for another: she’s gone from a sexual prisoner to sex object.

Act Two starts with the gamekeeper, who has a huge stuffed deer, and he molests his niece as she’s forced to pick at the deer’s guts. Rusalka watches in horror — it reminds her of her own relationship with her father. The Prince is a faithless, shallow lover as expected — the Princess comes onstage and boldly seduces the Prince in front of Rusalka. The humiliated Rusalka starts slapping herself. The direction here is faultless, and Kusej is able to make Rusalka’s plight very human.

There’s a horrifying wedding procession with brides carrying disemboweled deer. Rusalka finds herself drawn back to her old life, monstrous as it might have been. The famous aria “Beda, beda” is in this production a threat by the abusive father to her daughter. Rusalka even sinks into a fishtank as her father watches.

Act Three has Rusalka back in the living room of her cold and distant mother. Her mother delivers her lecture to Rusalka while holding a knife to her. It’s consistent with both the Fritzl case, where the mother was apparently compliant of her daughter’s captivity, and the testimony of many victims of incest, who say that the mothers often focus the blame on the daughters instead of the husbands.

The gamekeeper makes an appearance again — the Water Goblin stabs him to death in a fit of rage. Afterwards, the father and his daughters are carted off to an asylum. The Prince expires in Rusalka’s arms in an asylum, where she is presumably imprisoned for life with her abusive father and sisters.Kusej’s take on the opera is obviously extremely dark and at times hard to watch. But then again, most fairy tales in their original form are not Disney movies — they are violent, with disturbing sexual undertones. Dvorak’s music is intense and moments of great melodic beauty are constantly interrupted by sinister, dissonant chords.

If there is one weakness in the production I’d say that the Prince is never very well-integrated into the storyline. The story is so focused on Rusalka’s relationship with her family that the Prince is a cipher. If he never cared about Rusalka, why did he visit her in the insane asylum? Unless the Prince’s visit is a hallucination? And why would he commit suicide for a woman he had so little regard for? It’s never very clear.

In a less concept-driven production, these inconsistencies would be explained by “It’s a fairy tale. The Prince has to kiss her before the story is over.” In Kusej’s production, this hole in the plot becomes noticeable. But otherwise the production is a powerful, unforgettable re-imagining of the opera.Another caveat I’d give about watching this DVD is that I think it requires a fairly strong background knowledge of the opera and the news events that inspired the production.

One must be familiar with the Little Mermaid tale (not the Disney version), and a healthy familiarity with the dark original Germanic fairy tales (e.g., “Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t end with the Prince kissing her — he rapes her, and she bears him two children before she wakes up from her dream) would also increase an understanding of the production’s concept. The Fritzl case was notorious in the news, but again, background knowledge of the case helps. In other words, the production is, despite its sensationalistic imagery, somewhat of a rarefied taste.

The performance is anchored by the stunning performance of Kristine Opolais in the title role. If your idea of Rusalka is Renee Fleming or the old recording with Gabriella Benackova, Opolais’s might not be your cup of tea. Opolais’s voice doesn’t have the beauty of those two other famous artists, and at times it can sound harsh and glassy. But the role is a long one, that calls for lyrical beauty as well as veristic outbursts. Opolais’s voice has the cut and bite to handle Dvorak’s heavy orchestration in the second and third acts.

What’s more important, she is a great actress — the character’s fear, horror, longing, despair, and hope are all brilliantly conveyed by Opolais. With another singer, the facial expressions and physical wincing and writhing might seem overwrought, but Opolais makes you believe. The performance gathered buzz throughout the opera world, and Opolais is set to make her debut as Magda in La Rondine at the Met next season. I will definitely have a ticket.

Klaus Florian Vogt’s Prince has a clear, bright, tenor voice, but having only heard Vogt in recordings, to me he sounds like a Mozart tenor singing the lyrical heldentenor roles. His voice is very light and under pressure has a nasal edge. Maybe if I heard him live it’d be different because I know he’s garnered excellent reviews in many opera houses.

Nadia Krasteva has a deep, throaty, rich mezzo voice that screams “In a few years I will be in demand everywhere as Dalila and Carmen.” But maybe the best supporting performances came from Günther Groissböck. as the Water Goblin and Janina Baechle as Jezibaba. They were intense and frighteningly creepy as the cruel parents of the water maidens.

Opera on Blu-ray continues to be somewhat problematic. The increased definition picture quality (along with the trend of filming almost exclusively in closeups) means that sometimes what would likely be stunning effects in the theater up-close on TV look artificial. The wig lines, the heavy stage makeup, the fake mustaches, the clear stockings that Opolais wears in order to avoid walking barefoot onstage, are all too visible on Blu-ray. But still, this production and performance are both highly recommended.