We in the English-speaking world have a tendency to think of fairy tales in a very Disneyfied fashion, having been weaned on films featuring beautiful, irreproachable princesses living happily ever after in Technicolor with a bevy of singing woodland companions. It’s easy to forget that fairy tales in their origins are actually myths for children; allegorical tales about inevitable rites of passage which are simultaneously full of magic and beauty; but also dark, violent and grotesque.

Krassimira Stoyanova © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Krassimira Stoyanova
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s new production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Vienna Staatsoper draws deeply from this stark, old-world fairy tale tradition. His Rusalka (Krassimira Stoyanova) is not a water nymph in the traditional sense: her home is a desolate space covered with gnarled trees, snow and ice. Her father, the water goblin (Günther Groissböck), and three sprite sisters (Valentina Nafornită, Lena Belkina, Ilseyar Khayrullova) look like Legolas’ evil cousins. White-blond hair flows to their knees, and in the final act they feast on the kitchen boy (Stephanie Houtzeel) like sexy monsters out of True Blood. Lush costumes (Marianne Glittenberg) abound, from the dark red velvet and fur gown of the foreign princess (Monika Bohinec) to the crow-feathered wonder adorning Ježibaba (Janina Baechle) and to the suggestive, elegant robes of the sprites and dour attire of Tim Burton-esque wedding guests.

One of the difficulties with Rusalka at times is that without work and attention it can be very static. Dvořák’s melancholy sweeps and undulations can quickly become self-indulgent, and there is just not a load of action inherent to the story. Both of these challenges were addressed and overcome impressively. The characters were very well directed; intentions and attitudes were clearly portrayed and fleshed out. The motion was continuous but not hectic or thoughtless. Rolf Glittenberg’s stage design (lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann) combined visual strength and beauty without being in the least boring or mundane. The action took place on a lower and upper level, depicting a world outside as well as within. This allowed for psychological shifts and activity to be clearly portrayed, often through windows. I did not love the directorial choice of giving the gamekeeper (Gabriel Bermúdez) and kitchen boy caricature-like movements and postures, though it certainly made their brutal murder by Ježibaba in Act III easier to deal with. En bref, there are elements one could take issue with, but the production is generally strong and I can see it finding continued success at the Staatsoper so long as the level of musicianship this cast brought is maintained.

Valentina Nafornita, Günther Groissböck, Lena Belkina, Ilseyar Khayrullova © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Valentina Nafornita, Günther Groissböck, Lena Belkina, Ilseyar Khayrullova
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
The musical execution and exquisite singing are the big reasons this Rusalka was such a resounding success. Conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s expertise with the repertoire is undeniable and the Vienna Philharmonic (under the moniker of “Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper”) played absolutely brilliantly under his baton. The music never got stuck or bogged down, as it often can, but flowed and moved easily and idiomatically. Moreover, Bĕlohlávek’s attention to the singers was spectacular. When the three water sprites got a little over-excited in the third act, he reined them in and restored order before the audience could even start to wonder if there was something going on. He cued the principles consistently and simultaneously brought out some very clean, beautiful solo and ensemble work from the orchestra. At times, especially in the second act, a few voices had difficulty finding their way through the orchestral textures, but in general it was well beyond musically satisfying.

And the singing! Krassimira Stoyanova is about as close to perfect as you can hear on the opera stage today. Her voice is youthful and unburdened in its sound, yet strong as steel across the vast range this role requires without any sort of nasty edge. She manages to possess a sound which is very honest and unadorned, yet rich and full. Michael Schade gave a highly sensitive portrayal of the Prince with whom Rusalka falls in love. What he lacks in volume is well compensated for in beautiful phrasing and sensitive coloring. Both mezzos in the production, Janina Baechle and Monika Bohinec, own astounding instruments and not only embodied their dark roles but showed us some beautiful vocal colors. Günther Groissböck’s smoky bass is memorable, attractive and unique in its timbre, and his fatherly depiction of the “Wassermann” was layered and interesting. Valentina Nafornită, Lena Belkina, Ilseyar Khayrullova proved their capability for larger roles than the water sprites in this production, as did both Gabriel Bermúdez and Stephanie Houtzeel.

Thunderous applause, numerous curtain calls; all in all it was quite a fairy-tale evening.

****1