Like an enchanted fairy-tale pop-up book, a full moon hovers over a dark circular pond in a forest with large tree trunks all slightly leaning unnervingly sideways as if we have  reached a place where the even the laws of gravity are somehow distorted. Longstanding Scottish Opera fans will remember Anthony McDonald’s unforgettable images etched in the memory: the sunken car set in The Midsummer Marriage and, in The Trojans, the suspended box of doomed Trojan Women. With exciting lighting design from Wolfgang Goebbel, who lit Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, a visual feast was assured for Scottish Opera’s first Rusalka. A strong cast, and with new music director Stuart Stratford in the pit, promised a memorable performance of Dvořák’s most successful opera, here sung in Czech.

Peter Wedd (Prince) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka) © James Glossop
Peter Wedd (Prince) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka)
© James Glossop

Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto for this unhappy fairy-tale references The Little Mermaid, but also rural Czech folklore peopled by mischievous sprites: Dryads in the trees, Rusalka and Vodník haunting the waterways, with Ježibaba a superbly grumpy forest witch. In this tale, Rusalka yearns to leave her watery home, to become human and to fall for the Prince who hunts in the woods, but the witch imposes tough conditions leaving her dumb to all humans, and damned to an existence between life and death if she is rejected by her lover. Rusalka accepts, despite stern warnings from Vodník, her water sprite father, and ends up at the Palace. The Prince soon tires of Rusalka’s silence and is distracted by a glamorous – and very talkative – Foreign Princess, and Rusalka returns to the forest to await her fate.

Although it is tempting for directors to put a modern spin on the fairytale, McDonald sensibly leaves the audience to join the dots in a traditional interpretation of the story, the singers peppered with dancers and some delicious touches of ghoulish humour throughout. Flame-haired mermaid water spirits frolic in the sunken pool as Vodník, authoritatively voiced by a stern Willard White, half naked, covered in weed, rising out of the water, and later more dramatically through the palace floorboards as he tries to control his daughter. Anne-Sophie Duprels was handicapped somewhat by her mermaid’s tail as Rusalka, perched on the decking and singing beautifully to the enormous moon. Lively dancing dryads capered in the trees, accompanied by a trio with nicely blended voices. Leah-Marian Jones as Ježibaba in her hut, shattering the neon blue set with its bright red and black patterned wallpaper, gave a pantomime baddie performance, wielding a knife to perform rough surgery to separate Rusalka’s tailfin into two bruised and scarred legs, and I enjoyed her Act III aria with menacing violas in the orchestra.

Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka) and Peter Wedd (Prince) © James Glossop
Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka) and Peter Wedd (Prince)
© James Glossop

The second act in the palace was a tale of a fish out of water, the dumb Rusalka struggling to comprehend the jealous Foreign Princess, Natalya Romaniw, who flirted to win the Prince’s heart with her intriguing fashionably lopsided curly mop of hair, and bright strong soprano immediately appealing in contrast to Rusalka’s silent glares. McDonald playfully stuffs the act with fish, with an enormous specimen the size of a child being hung up in the larder, two cooks gutting real fish, a stylised meal where the diners eat fish like trout taking flies and there is even a Mexican wave of soup eating. Julian Hubbard's tweed-coated Gamekeeper and Clare Presland's hapless Kitchen Boy both gave amusing and robust performances in these important secondary roles, moving the story along with kitchen gossip in the palace, and playing “who dares” to awaken Ježibaba in the forest. It was lots of fun, but the irony of Rusalka plonked back into water in a tin bath to prepare for the party, and then presented with fish to eat, all pointed to a tragic end.   

Sir Willard White (Vodník) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka) © James Glossop
Sir Willard White (Vodník) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Rusalka)
© James Glossop

Dvořák’s sumptuous music and lush orchestration leapt out of the pit with Stratford producing a range of muted colours and real excitement, sounded terrific, almost Wagnerian in the final act. Most of the singers, including Peter Wedd’s strong tenor voice as the Prince, carried across the pit, but Duprels was overwhelmed at several points especially when placed too far downstage. The final duet between the Prince and Rusalka was a thrilling few moments as the Prince received his deadly kiss, and Rusalka – now white-haired – was condemned to wander forever between life and death, invisible even to the hunters as Willard White’s Vodník sadly pronounced no winners.

First seen at Grange Park Opera, the whole creative team travelled to Glasgow to oversee this revival. The sharp attention to detail was apparent from Lucy Burge’s sprightly and amusing choreography to the nuances of lighting lighting using golden warmth for the humans and a cold steely blue and white palette for Rusalka. It is a performance which surely bodes well for the company under its new musical director Stuart Stratford.

****1