Review: RUSALKA, Royal Opera House

A new production of Dvořák's opera runs until 7 March

By: Feb. 22, 2023
Review: RUSALKA, Royal Opera House
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Review: RUSALKA, Royal Opera House Rusalka is a fish out of water tale. Literally. She is a water nymph who after falling in love with a human Prince she strikes a magical deal with a witch to become a woman, on the condition that she sacrifices her voice. But she's an immiscible alien in our grubby human world and, abandoned by the Prince, returns cursed to bring pollution back with her into her underwater paradise.

By the end debris is sprawled across the stage in an ugly visual cacophony, her once-cobalt blue lagoon morphs into luminous red lava with sickly black stains stewing and bubbling within. The message is clear: an apocalyptic vision of the future looms on the horizon if we don't clean up our act.

The environmentalist spin to Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yees' new production of Rusalka at the Royal Opera House is an interesting albeit well-trodden lens to view Dvořák's 1901 opera. Whilst its message is undeniably important, it doesn't have the dramatic teeth to take the bite it wants to, leaving it yearning to be more radical than it is.

Symbolism is applied impasto. Rusalka's world of woodland fantasy, moss-clad forest sprites prancing around a mystic body of water surrounded by a deluge of dangling plants, is anathema to the human world of polished white wood, eerily reminiscient of a John Lewis showroom. A chorus of party goers in the second act puff aggressively on cigarettes, exhaling smoke like factory chimneys and their costumes reflecting light like a sickly oil spill glare.

It unfolds under an omnipresent stone canopy with a circular hole dangling above them precariously, a hole in the ozone layer through which crepuscular light seeps through. It's heavy handed to say the least (humans = pollution = bad) and grows thematically monotonous by the end. It's not helped by prolonged sequences plagued by inert blocking. Soon a divergence emerges between the epic scope and lyrical melodies of Dvořák's music supercharged by Semyon Bychkov's thrilling yet sensuous conducting, and the static imagery left to linger on stage.

The emphasis on environmentalism also comes at the opportunity cost of an underlying human warmth. Asmik Grigorian's Rusalka and David Butt Philip's Prince don't muster much chemistry together as doomed lovers. Although Grigorian has just recovered from illness, the problem stems from something more fundamental to the production. Their relationship plays out on a set track rather than organically.

Her vocals are feathery but firm with a poignant fragility emerging as Rusalka fractures emotionally. Butt Philip, a former member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, is stirringly melancholic but quite doesn't fill the space, especially when alongside a pulse pounding Emma Bell as the Duchess who catches the Prince's eyes and the audience's ears.

The climate crisis presents the largest existential threat to humanity. It's taken most people long enough to wake up to this inconvenient truth (as Al Gore put it). One can't help but feel that if this production were staged twenty years ago it would have more of an impact.

Rusalka plays at the Royal Opera House until 7 March

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell


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