Monday, 13 July 2009
Hearts break by the lake
Forgive me for having already exploited heartbreak in the title over a year ago, for Glyndebourne’s Onegin revival with Maija Kovaleska as Tatyana and Jurowski conducting. Well, they’ve done it again down in that Sussex heaven, this time taking more of a risk by giving magic-realist theatre director Melly Still her first break in opera. The subject was a perfect choice, as it turned out, Dvorak’s Rusalka, and with the essential ingredient of a tear-jerking heroine in Ana Maria Martinez, seen above in one of the four Bill Cooper production photographs featured here cradling the prince she’s kissed to death (Brandon Jovanovich).
You may have gathered I’d already fallen even more deeply in love with Rusalka over the week or so trying to get under its skin for the pre-performance talk on Sunday. Thanks to the full orchestral score, which arrived in the nick of time from Dilia in Prague, I was able to marvel even more at Dvorak’s loving detail in every bar. This has to be his masterpiece, as I intimated before. Everything is in it: the tender divided strings, the doubling of vocal lines with bass clarinet and cor anglais, the proto-Janacekian tenderness of Rusalka’s often-heard entrance music, Bartered Bridey dances for comic relief. Alongside the Wagnerian subtlety of the many thematic transformations, Dvorak gives all his singers wonderful set pieces fully embedded in the drama; and even the Polonaise-ballet at the Prince’s court in Act Two weaves in the music of Rusalka, her love and impending doom. There’s plenty more to find, and I’m still finding it.
I’d been listening to two very characterful recordings – Mackerras’s with Renee and Big Ben, Neumann’s with the melting Benackova – and watching two radically different productions on DVD - Pountney’s Edwardian-nursery ENO classic and Robert Carsen’s psychological delve for the Paris Opera. It says so much about the work that it can take their diametrically opposed endings. The Rusalka of Pountney’s Eilene Hannan is left wandering in eternal torment in the cruellest curtain of any opera I’ve seen; Carsen’s Renee Fleming achieves consummation in a hotel bedroom with her Prince (Sergei Larin), who doesn’t even die from her kiss. Dvorak’s shift from C sharp minor to beatified D flat major suggests to me that Rusalka does achieve some kind of transcendence. Still was able to evoke that as Martinez’s lacerated Rusalka looks out hopefully – does she see the Prince’s soul rising? – and the reeds of the despoiled woodland glade glow with pinpoints of light.
Weirdly, the image I’ve come away with is the one of the earthy, sexed-up wood nymphs in their barky skirts and woolly jumpers leaping in the air and joyously clutching their breasts. I’ll never be able to hear Dvorak’s wild dances in Act One without thinking of that. In Act Three, the nymphs become like Bacchae, threatening to rip Alasdair Elliott’s Gamekeeper to pieces in sexual frenzy. So there’s violence here, and lots of animal evisceration, but Still insists – as Carsen did not – on the supernatural. Rusalka is a real mermaid, manipulated by a creepy movement group until she gains mortal legs, and later her sisters appear, suspended, to shun her.
By the same token, the gorgeous-toned Mischa Schelomianski’s Vodnik is a picture-book swamp-creature, though a deeply compassionate one, and luxuriously-cast Diadkova’s Jezibaba, a character she depicted in Carsen’s production as a savage alter ego of the heroine, waddles around as a strip-cartoon Babushka, definitely dispassionate but amused, and amusing (though shadowed by frightening black sisters played by burly blokes). The occasional wit of Jaroslav Kvapil's eloquent libretto certainly came across here.
The ball scene is fluently done, with stylish costumes and shadowy dances; the choral image of the white bride and the red roses is carried through to Rusalka’s short-lived happiness.
In that strange hiatus where the principal soprano can’t sing for three-quarters of an act, we had more luxury from the elegant Tatyana Pavlovskaya as the Foreign Princess, crowning an act which Jiri Belohlavek and the LPO whipped up into a Gotterdammerungesque frenzy. Belohlavek knows every word of the text off by heart and probes deep into both the luminosity and the surprising violence of Dvorak’s score. Jovanovich’s handsome prince isn’t quite the verging-on-heldentenor his role requires, and he glossed over his final top C; but he died so effectively and movingly. Martinez, too, may not be everyone’s idea of a creamy Rusalka voice, but her technique knows no bounds, she hits every top note with searing intensity and she’s an astonishing actress, using vocal colour, face and body to maximum effect.
Some say, oh, but you should have seen the Grange Park Rusalka. I don’t care; this was perfect for me, I wept as I told the lecture audience they would and should in the last quarter of an hour, and if L’amour de loin revealed the ideal director for Tristan and Parsifal, Melly Still should be snapped up immediately to direct a Ring cycle. She’d capture both the supernatural and the achingly human in it to perfection.
Glyndebourne, of course, is the place to see Rusalka. You can imagine the poor sad nymph sitting on one of the overhanging willows by the lake, gazing at the water-lilies. OK, OK, I’m Fotherington Thomas, clap your hands if you believe in fairies. But Gbne on a clear Sunday afternoon, after a Saturday of driving rain, does that sort of thing to you.
Here's a useful phrase you might want to try out on any of Dvorak's compatriots if you're going to see this production: 'jsi videl Rusalky u jezera?' or, 'seen any Rusalkas down at the lake?' I got my Czech-speaking friend Charles Kerry to translate that so I could make the punters laugh just a bit at the talk.
One more for charm: I’ll admit this visitation, which belongs more to the world of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen than it does to Rusalka, wasn’t snapped at Glyndebourne but at Chelsea Physic Garden the week before. In among the blue damsel-flies, this giant helicopter of a dragonfly came as a surprise.
And I haven’t really finished. Our de luxe Glyndebourne weekend began with Falstaff on Saturday, an equally dazzling experience with another great conductor, unforgettable central performance and endlessly resourceful direction. But I must get some Real Work done, so I’ll come back to that tomorrow.