One of my favorite terms to use to describe productions nowadays is “regie lite.” Regie lite productions dominate Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and increasingly, the Metropolitan Opera. Traditional stage directions are tweaked, periods are reset, but not in a way that radically deconstructs the work. If hardcore “regie” directors do a Michael Jackson total-deconstruction makeover on the opera, regie lite productions do a, well, Nancy Pelosi botox session. After viewing a new DVD of Stefan Herheim’s production of Rusalka, I’ve got a new category: “regie slick.”

Herheim’s production eschews the traditional regie staples of minimalism and shock value. There are no black trench coats in sight. The costumes and sets are lavish, with an almost Broadway aesthetic (plenty of flashing lights and color) and the violence and sex are presented in a stylized way. The overall look of the production is so full of cinematic detail that the subset of the opera audience that claps at the scenery will definitely be happy. It’s not offensive if it’s so pretty, right?

Herheim’s slick, pleasing sense of aesthetics belies the subversive way he can deconstruct an opera entirely, to the point where everything you “knew” about the opera is no longer true. His production of Rusalka is a prime example of this. Dvorak’s hauntingly beautiful fairy tale has undergone many regie “deconstructions” but all of them (including the critically acclaimed Kusej productuon) have put the focus squarely on Rusalka’s hunger for love and freedom. Certainly Dvorak’s music supports this view: there’s nothing quite as heart-rending as the sad orchestral accompaniment in Act Three, as Rusalka’s dreams of love are shattered.

Herheim shifts the focus of the opera entirely to one of the most mysterious and problematic characters in a “traditional” Rusalka production: the Water Gnome. Usually it’s unclear whether he wants Rusalka to be free or not. For Herheim, the entire opera is the vision/delusion of a deeply troubled, sexually frustrated male. The lush, romantic music becomes almost ironic, a stark contrast to the grim realities of urban decay and sexual frustration. Female oppression becomes male projection.

The production opens on a city square. It’s vaguely modern, vaguely timeless, sort of European, but with the idyllic rain and pretty lights, it looks like it could be an MGM musical. Slowly the seediness of any major metropolis creeps into the picture: there are homeless people, sex toy shops, prostitutes. Jezibaba (Renée Morloc) is a kindly homeless lady who watches the events with amusement. The Water Gnome (Willard White) lives in an apartment with his wife. We can only see glimpses of their life through a window, but it’s obvious that the marriage is no longer happy.

The Water Gnome wanders into the streets, and he encounters Rusalka in her first form—a bold, brassy streetwalker (Myrtó Papatanasu). There are sexy women everywhere—Rusalka the streetwalker, the three girls who work in their diner across the street (the “Wood Nymphs” in a traditional production), the fake breasts in the windows of a sex toy shop. The production’s most iconic moment might be Rusalka perched atop an advertising kiosk to sing “The Song to the Moon.” In this version it’s a siren song of seduction. The Water Gnome’s rage and alienation resemble Travis Bickle’s—he desires what he can’t have, but feels a simultaneous disgust at what he does have.

From there, the Herheim production really becomes a surreal fantasy/flashback. The Prince (Pavel Cernoch) is a younger, handsomer, version of The Water Gnome. In the second act, The Water Gnome flashes back to his wedding to The Foreign Princess.  She and Rusalka become almost indistinguishable, as do the Prince and the Water Gnome. The Water Gnome tries to reimagine his wedding to his wife as romantic, their marriage as loving and sexually satisfying, and it’s not clear whether it’s a flashback, a delusion, or a combo of both. Memory is tricky, after all.

The direction becomes even more surreal with the Wedding Ball—all of a sudden it’s as if Herheim is sending up a traditional Rusalka performance, as there’s rows of folk dancers dressed up as a mix of “sea creatures” and sex workers. Rusalka is in a sizzling mermaid costume, and the Prince and Foreign Princess have moved to an actual opera box within the theater.

It’s a big, stark crash back to reality in Act Three. The Water Gnome stabs his wife to death after yet another argument. After this brutal violent act he reverts back to a dreamland, as a bloodied Rusalka and Prince sing their love duet. They kiss, it’s beautiful, and then a fade out. The Water Gnome is led away by police and there’s yellow tape by the scene as his wife’s corpse is brought out on a stretcher. Rusalka reverts back to her streetwalker self, and she is only momentarily distracted by the violent events. Just another day in a big city.

The production is really too rich and detailed to describe fully in a review—in fact, I don’t think a video captures more than a fraction of the impact this show must have had in the theater. La Monnaie was probably the perfect place to present such an avant-garde production: you get singers who aren’t A-list stars, but their commitment to Herheim’s vision is obvious and adds to the overall experience. At the center of the performance is White’s towering portrayal of the Water Gnome: his bass is smooth and mellifluous, and thus the Water Gnome’s flashbacks/delusions become more believable. At one point, the Water Gnome might have been a handsome Prince.

Papatanasu’s soprano has a dry edge to it but her top notes are beautiful and blazing. The Prince in this production is not an actual being, but a double of the Water Gnome’s younger self, but Cernoch’s tenor was nevertheless pleasing in an inoffensive way. If Morloc (Jezibaba) sounded somewhat underpowered and Annalena Persson (Foreign Princess/Wife) was vocally just okay, they fit in with the fabric of this production.

Ádam Fisher conducted the score with the usual traditional attention to Dvorak’s lush orchestration and folk rhythms. He didn’t “regie” the music, and that increased the production’s dramatic effect. As I said, the achingly beautiful music was like a delusion. He does take some cuts with the Gamekeeper scenes but they seem acceptable in the context of everything fitting with Herheim’s vision.

It’s a magical, theatrical presentation and one I could imagine many singers singing up for participation. I feel like many singers who express disdain for “regie” productions are really saying “I am not walking out onstage with my junk exposed and wearing a painted on black beard. No, Not happening.” Herheim’s approach is like “But you’ll look so beautiful.” I could also picture more “conservative” audiences responding to his productions, because of their visual beauty.

Stefan Herheim is like a photographer who shoots the same person from different angles, lighting, and camera filters, and leaves it up to the audience to decide what the “real” person looks like. The results are bewildering but immensely stimulating.