Tonight was the Dublin première of Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, and the most surprising fact about this is that it took 112 years for this enchanting opera to make its debut here. For, as tonight’s performance so aptly illustrated, Rusalka is a glorious work on so many different levels: it has hauntingly beautiful melodies, daring orchestral harmonies and an enchanting but ultimately tragic love story.

Natasha Jouhl © David Duff
Natasha Jouhl
© David Duff

The Lyric Opera Production allowed each of these elements to flourish in a very satisfying way. The stage was constructed in a realistic fashion (well, as realistic as an enchanted lake is ever going to be) with a protruding flat rock ten feet from the ground, under which a live waterfall allowed nymphs and water goblins to enter and exit very effectively. Shimmering lights suggested the lapping of waters, while conveniently placed toadstools and stalks of trees allowed the singers to ascend to and descend from the rock. For the second act, the rock lowered down to become the stairs of the prince’s castle with two Doric pillars set at an odd angle in the background. The singers who were connected with court wore traditional costumes of the era, while the nymphs’ and sprites’ costumes were more impressionistic in design. In the case of Vodník, the water gnome, the azure hue of his face and hair was evocative of the watery underworld he inhabited, though being clad from head to foot in blue denims was less convincing. The production also featured some cleverly constructed acrobatic and balletic moments too. Water nymphs hovered magically across the stage or pirouetted impressively while being hoisted into the ether. The ballet sequence allowed for an imaginative rendition of the ball in the prince’s castle.

The singing was universally good, with special mention going to London-born Natasha Jouhl as the eponymous heroine. Gifted with a glorious voice, an impressive range and effortless high notes, she conveyed the ethereal innocence and sorrow of Rusalka with a simplicity and purity that spoke to the heart. Jouhl came into her own such as midway through the Act I aria “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“Song to the Moon"), where her voice might have melted the stoniest-hearted prince. The only pity was that we were deprived of her singing for much of the second act due to the witch’s transforming potion, which made her mute in front of her lover.

Jeff Gwaltney as the Prince was vocally assured and convincingly lovestruck, lecherous and repentant as the occasion demanded. The alacrity with which he corrected his inattentiveness to his guests according to the reprimand given by the vampish Foreign Princess (Gabriela Istoc) was amusing, though it is doubtful if court etiquette ever demanded of a Prince to kiss his female guests in anything more than just a purely salutational sort of way.

Richard Wiegold as Vodník, the father of Rusalka was commanding both vocally and physically and his anguished reiterations of “Rusalka bledá” (“poor Rusalka”) conveyed convincingly the sorrow of a father for his suffering daughter. The witch’s role of Jezibaba (Imelda Drumm) is a pivotal one to the action of the drama. It is she who transforms Rusalka from water nymph into a human and, towards the end, offers the chance to Rusalka to transform her back into a nymph. Drumm’s characterization was suitably macabre with sinister cackles and evil hexes, and her singing showed great agility and power. Both Stephen Brown as the Gamekeeper and Johane Ansell as his nephew impressed and showed that they possessed a fine sense of comic timing as they alternatively brandished a cross, donned a necklace of garlic bulbs and downed copious amounts of holy water upon visiting the witch. There was some excellent coquettish and ethereal singing from the three water sprites (Norah King, Lynsey Curtin and Raphaela Mangan), with particular praise going to King and Curtin: towards the end of Act III, they managed to glide effortlessly through the air at height, singing enchantingly and all the while make elegant balletic moves.

The Wexford Festival Orchestra under the baton of David Heusel did a credible job, though at times the comparatively few string players meant that the overall balance was somewhat skewed. Moreover, the acoustics in the Gaiety Theatre are very dry and so at times we lacked the full orchestral power demanded by this dramatic work. This was a pity because Dvořák, as a significant symphonic composer of the Romantic period, did not write an orchestral score merely as a pleasant accompaniment but rather as an integral part of the complex tapestry of singing, theatre and spectacle. That said, the Lyric Opera Production of Rusalka is an utterly compelling operatic experience.