Dvořák’s late masterpiece Rusalka is a brilliant music drama couched in the parlance of a fairy tale. A water nymph falls in love with a prince and wishes to become human. With the help of a witch, she gains human form at the expense of the power of speech. The prince, unable to understand a mute lover, betrays her, thereby condemning both to their doom. There is enough in Jaroslav Kvapil's libretto to interpret this fairytale as a psycho-sexual drama possibly involving incest (Rusalka and her sisters with the water goblin), and sexual and emotional brutality.

Krassimira Stoyanova (Rusalka) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)
Krassimira Stoyanova (Rusalka)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2014)

The current production in Vienna by director Sven-Eric Bechtolf premiered in January 2014. It focuses on Rusalka's burgeoning sexuality and her fear of it. Rolf Glittenberg’s relatively spare sets utilize glass doors in the back as a way to illustrate and supplement the stage action, with some characters in silhouette observing and enacting in mute movement, just like Rusalka in the first part of Act II when she is deprived of speech. The bi-level staging for Acts I and III works well to create a mythical world populated by witches, nymphs and goblins with tall and twisted trees. The middle act is a modern room in red with a covered bed/bench in the middle with corridor access stage right. The chorus of wedding guests stays behind the glass doors which open during their scene, thus isolating the domestic drama of the palace from the rest of the world. The overall impression of the production is a desperate sense of isolation of each character, with any attempt at physical and emotional contact denied by his/her own fear. Heavily choreographed movements further reinforce the lack of spontaneity on the part of the characters. In keeping with the broody production, costumes by Marianne Glittenberg are monochromic except for the Foreign Princess’s dark red dress.

The evening was a great success musically. Replacing the ailing Krassimira Stoyanova at short notice, Camilla Nylund took just a few minutes to warm up and was a splendid Rusalka. Her pure, creamy and gleaming soprano was especially suited to the otherworldly nymph. Her voice is even and clean throughout the demanding registers of the role, a real pleasure to experience. Rusalka’s famous “Song to the Moon”, sung with wistful longing, was one of the highlights of the evening. She went from strength to strength, and her poignant singing in Act III as she put her prince to death to release him from his suffering was particularly moving.

The tenor Klaus Florian Vogt cut a dashing figure as Prince. His clear and clarion tenor easily cut through the heavy orchestra, and yet he brought both sweetness and longing to the role of the prince, characterized here less as a callow man than as a conflicted one. His singing, while thrillingly dynamic and cleanly phrased, was also deliberate and measured, as if he was expressing the prince’s inner thought. This prince seemed to grow from naiveté in Act I, confusion in Act II, finally to wisdom in Act III, and his singing skillfully expressed the transition in the character.

Young Korean bass Jongmin Park made a strong impression as the Water Goblin. He has the ability to manage his deep and sonorous voice as a young singer should, that is, in a focused and straightforward projection. The voice is flexible and his acting was natural. One should expect a great deal from this singer in the future.

Two mezzo soprano roles that could be interchangeable or could be sung by the same singer, were both taken up by talented singers. Monika Bohinec’s Jezibaba was especially memorable for her flair for dramatic singing with her rich and dark voice. Her tormenting of Rusalka in Act I and her murder of the kitchen boy in Act III showed her a fine and frightening actress. The Russian Elena Zhidkova sang the thankless role of Foreign Princess with fierce determination and passion, and her high declamatory notes rang out splendidly. Other minor roles were all ably sung, including Gabriel Bermudez as the Forester and Margaret Plummer as the kitchen boy. 

Leading the splendid Vienna State Opera Orchestra with a sure hand of a veteran was a young Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil. His tempi were generally deliberate but never lagging, and he gave plenty of breathing room to the singers without sacrificing the overall musical performance. The strings were especially fine and lush while bringing out the detailed nuance of the score. The trumpet accompanied Rusalka’s singing in beautiful duets. The various leitmotifs in the score were clearly articulated, yet never dominant. They were rather brought back again and again mostly as a faint reminder of the characters and their motives and actions. The overall integrity and splendor of the Dvořák’s music saw a splendid realization both on stage and in the pit.