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Ionarts at Large: Rusalka Premiere at the Salzburg Festival

Different, wonderful, and utterly conventional – that might best define Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito’s Salzburg Rusalka: delightful touches shot through with some odd moments and an orchestra in Franz Welser-Möst’s Clevelanders that bathed the singers in appropriately angular, only occasionally sumptuous Dvořák. The orchestra, the highlight of the premiere on the 17th, displayed a wonderfully civilized sound, perfectly attuned to the needs of Prince Piotr Beczala and Rusalka Camilla Nylund.

Barbara Ehnes’ set in the House for Mozart (formerly known as the Small Festival House) was a strange mix of hunting lodge meets sauna, bordello with vinyl couches, and a 1970 home’s tacky living room fit for a pimp. Unfortunately it didn’t always support the many fine individual moments of the direction so much as it let them down. A nice touch, though, to have the revolving stage ‘rock’ back and forth (by gently sliding it from left to right) during scenes under or near water – or to use the prompter’s hole as an abyss whence the watery creatures came and whither they went.

Camilla Nylund as Rusalka, Salzburger Festspiele 2008 - Photo © A.T. Schaefer
Camilla Nylund as Rusalka, Salzburger Festspiele 2008
Photo © A.T. Schaefer

There were humorous moments with a stuffed animal cat that first the youthful Rusalka played with, only for it to return as an oversized cat-agent of the seedy Water-witch Ježibaba (Birgit Remmert) who blow-dries Rusalka’s fishtail to become legs in preparation for the latter’s landfall. The cat returned once more, less prominently, in Act III as a purring kitten on Ježibaba’s (vinyl) couch: this time a real cat (!) and obviously one with nerves like steel to stay put amid full throttled singing all around.

Neat the idea for Rusalka to have a shoe closet before she even has feet – giving away her dreams of a land-bound future but also serving as means of enticement for Ježibaba. When she does become human, in search of love and a soul, she wears five-inch heels that only underscore her awkward gait, unfit to move properly in human social settings and stiff in manner and appearance. But somehow it all didn’t connect upon first viewing: Surely the underlying story of various suppressed, unexplored, or impossible sexual identities, hopes, and desires could have been conveyed with more immediacy or a greater, clearer dramatic line.

Camilla Nylund as Rusalka, Salzburger Festspiele 2008 - Photo © A.T. Schaefer
Camilla Nylund and Piotr Beczala in Rusalka, Salzburger Festspiele 2008
Photo © A.T. Schaefer

The opening, with the Water Goblin Vodník ascending from beneath the stage and the three wood sprites flirting and dancing in suggestive fashion, exuded a strong hint of Das Rheingold á la Patrice Chéreau. The second act’s Tchaikovsky moments and ever recurring (and promptly aborted) catchy – very catchy – dance rhythms were all expertly executed by Welser-Möst and his crew. I don’t know where the harmonium in the Act III chorus came from (I don’t remember having noticed that before), but it had a similar effect as Smetana’s tableaux vivantRybář” (The Fisherman) which in turn looks back to Das Rheingold.

Piotr Beczala sang his heart out and was the only major character who had no problems with the Czech libretto. His role might be a little smaller than Rusalka’s (who has two of the more thankful arias in 20th century opera) but he outsang even the excellent Camilla Nylund - who in turn topped her Prince, would-be lover, and betrayer in the dramatic presentation. The two Americans mezzos Emily Magee (a clamorous, appealing foreign duchess) and Washington regular bass Alan Held (a booming Water Goblin) completed the well above average vocal contributions: Held’s voice rang throughout the excellent acoustic of the House for Mozart, even when he sang toward the back of the stage, making irrelevant to non-native Czech ears that his pronunciation reminded as much of Hungarian as of a Slavic language.

The Salzburg Festival crowd, perhaps because the production poked fun at them in the excellent humiliation scene at Rusalka’s wedding festivities, or perhaps because it wouldn’t be a proper Salzburg premiere without it, loudly booed the production, thereby provoking nearly as vocal bravo-salvos. This fine though not entirely satisfactory production probably deserved neither.

Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito and Franz Welser-Möst - Photo © Luigi Caputo
Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito and Franz Welser-Möst
Photo © Luigi Caputo

Recommended Recording:
available at AmazonDvořák, Rusalka, Mackerras / Czech Philharmonic / Fleming, Heppner, Hawlata, Urbanová , Zajick

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