Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Rusalka: Bavarian State Opera, Tomas Hanus

Dvorak: Rusalka
Rusalka - Kristine Opolais
Prince – Klaus Florian Vogt
Foreign Princess – Nadia Krasteva
Water Goblin – Gunther Groisbock
Jezibaba – Janina Baechle
Forester – Ulrich Ress
Kitchen Boy – Tara Erraught
Hunter – John Chest
1st Wood Nymph – Evgenia Sotnikova
2nd Wood Nymph – Angela Brower
3rd Wood Nymph – Okka von der Damerau
Choir and Orchestra of Bavarian State Opera
Tomas Hanus – conductor
Martin Kusej - Stage Director
Thomas Grimm - Video Director
C Major 706408 (DVD)

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This production of Rusalka is fascinating, but is not going to be to everybody's taste. Director Martin Kusej indulges in some Regietheater indulgences that would be hard to imagine on the London stage. The work is updated to a modern setting. with the water nymphs as prostitutes held in a subterranean brothel. The Water Goblin is the sadistic pimp and Jezibaba the witch is a backstreet abortionist.
Harrowing stuff, but clever too. Rusalka is, after all, a victim of oppression in both worlds, and the libretto lets all of her tormentors, especially the Water Goblin and the Prince, off very easily indeed. The liner to this DVD describes the original fairy tale as naïve, and it certainly seems so by comparison. Obviously, there isn't much fairy tale left in this interpretation.
Visually, the staging emphasises polarities and opposites. The distinction between the world beneath the lake the human world is represented as indoors vs. outdoors, static vs. dynamic, and most powerfully of all, wet vs. dry. So the point towards the end of the second act when Rusalka returns to the deep is powerfully represented by her jumping into a goldfish tank, the image that appears on the front of the box.
Dvorak and his librettist make a more emotive distinction between the two worlds by making the underwater world a more homely and welcoming place for Rusalka, contrasting the human world where compassion is in short supply. By doing away with that small comfort, Kusej makes both environments hostile to the heroine, hostile in different ways perhaps, but for the audience the distinction ceases to be emotive, and the two worlds become alarmingly similar.
The reinterpretation tilts the focus of the narrative towards the Water Goblin. I suspect that finding a meaningful representation for this tricky character was one of the motivating forces behind the whole interpretation. By making him a callous pimp, Kusej is able to inject some logic into the first act: not only does Rusalka want to enter the human world to pursue the Prince, she also wants to escape the brothel. (Incidentally, the violence and particularly the sexual violence, meted out by the pimp on his charges in this first act is strong stuff. I'm not in favour of film censorship myself, but if this DVD were not exempt from the deliberations of the BBFC I suspect it would qualify for an 18 certificate.) In the second and third acts, the Water Goblin as pimp idea becomes more strained. He shows compassion for Rusalka – he is her father after all – but by this point the production has painted itself into a corner and is forced to just ignore this aspect of the libretto.
The DVD comes with a making of documentary, which is most talking heads, all saying pretty much the same thing. But one points that is repeatedly made is that Martin Kusej is not the sort of conceptual director to just find an inventive scenario and then leave the singers to get on with it. He really directs them, and expects more acting from them than you will usually find on the opera stage. So his Water Goblin as pimp ruse depends above all on the performance, both singing and acting, of Gunter Groissbock. He puts in a powerful and harrowing performance. He looks just right, with a spivvy pencil moustache and shabby suit. He dominates every scene he is in, something that most singers taking the role manage with the help of a fat suit, but which Groissbock can do with just his stage presence. He has the ideal voice for the part too, powerful and penetrating, with plenty of support in the lower register.
The other standout performance is from Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais in the lead role (no singer bios in the DVD liner sadly). She too is able to really act the part in a way rarely seen, or rarely expected, on the opera stage. Kusej seems intent on making the opera into a kind of psychological drama, with the privations and abuses to which the heroine is subjected continually reflected in her fragile mental state. Again it works largely thanks to the impressive acting and singing from Opolais. By focussing attention to her inner torments, her performance compensates for the drabness of the setting and the deliberate lack of fairy tale atmosphere. Her voice is confident, powerful and precise. The crispness and accuracy of her top notes is impressive, and the sheer emotion she brings to every line marks her out as a leading interpreter of late 19th century heroine roles. There is a certain angularity to her voice that I have more trouble with. Her singing is always emotive and involving, but isn't always pretty. Perversely, that makes her the ideal lead singer for this production, where every pretty or pleasant thing that Dvorak puts into the score is ridiculed or turned on its head.
The singing and acting from the rest of the cast is good, not uniformly so, but enough to carry both the music drama and the director's concept. Klaus Florian Vogt delivers a solid performance as the Prince. He doesn't give the kind of power that he would for Lohengrin or Walther, which is probably just as well, but like those roles, he is able to imbue the Prince with a real sense of humanity. Nadia Krasteva is suitably sultry as the rival love interest. Neither the Prince nor the Foreign Princess are roles that Kusej reinterprets in any radical way, so the solid performances that these two singers put in work thanks to the traditional operatic values they bring as much as anything else. Janina Baechle is not quite sinister enough as Jezebaba, especially as this is one of the radically reinterpreted roles. Her voice isn't quite deep enough for the part either, and the demands Dvorak makes on her lower register are not always fully met.
The video presentation, by Thomas Grimm, brings the viewer up close to the action, with close camera angles predominating. Despite this, the editing is discrete and the camera work never draws attention to itself. An atmospheric opening sequence is added at the start, before the overture, to make the video look like some kind of film noire. That's a nice touch, and by only lasting a minute or so, just about justifies its pretensions.
The sound quality on the DVD is very fine, about the best I have heard on this medium. The orchestra in particular are clear and punchy. Part of that impression is due to the bass, which is artificially amplified, at least on the stereo mix. That would stick out like a sore thumb on CD, but seems more justified in this context, especially given the cinematic styling of the post-production.
An uncompromising Rusalka, then, but one that succeeds on its own, admittedly indulgent, terms. For radical reinterpretation to work, an absolutely solid musical presentation is required, if only to ensure that the staging doesn't dominate the whole experience. Fortunately, the power of the musical presentation here is sufficient to balance the intense spectacle. It is likely to be the most shocking Rusalka you've seen, but the psychological power of this reading is more than enough to justify it's sensationalism.
Gavin Dixon

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