One sees, in those sections of the newspapers that are only perused in desperate boredom when waiting for a train or a dentist appointment, advertisements for an “immersive experience”. Such events usually promise to yank the participant into a particular universe with all manner of sensory tricks so that disbelief is suspended: a barrier has been crossed and a new world has been entered. Jack Furness’ new production of Dvořák's Rusalka at Garsington Opera was not advertised as such, but torrential downpours on first night led to a feeling that the set encompassed the entire Wormsley estate; one feared to stroll too close to the lake lest Vodník appear and drag us down to a submarine grave.

© Clive Barda

Furness’ production was delayed by two years – yet another artistic casualty of the pandemic – but it was entirely worth the wait. Garsington’s Rusalka is the pinnacle of what opera can and should be. A weighty rounded platform, reminiscent of the lid of a well, dominates the stage, rising to reveal murky water through which the creatures of the lake splosh. A single entry point between the two, rather like an ice-fishing hole, allows the worlds to interact. Ropes dangle from the ceiling, initially used by nymphs for wild and joyous dances (spectacularly created by circus choreographer Lina Johansson, they amp up the ‘wow factor’). In Act 2, the palace act, the lively occupants of the ropes have been replaced by animal carcasses. The set has become an abattoir, the place where the natural world comes to die, a point epitomised by the appearance of the Prince, evening attire protected by a bloodstained apron. 

Natalya Romaniw (Rusalka)
© Clive Barda

Furness avoids taking an overly intellectual approach – no gnomic symbols or futuristic uniforms here – and in doing so manages firstly to capture the story in vivid colour and secondly to make some uncomfortable points about identity, the breaching of boundaries and the price that may be paid for doing so. Among the many memorable moments, the dance of the courtiers and Rusalka’s clumsy attempts to mirror movements increasingly absurd and complex – designed to exclude – stand out, as does Rusalka’s silent horror as she gazes at the animal corpses before her. Furness’ attention to detail, and that of choreographer Fleur Darkin, never falters.

Natalya Romaniw (Rusalka), Gerard Schneider (Prince), Sky Ingram (Foreign Princess) and Chorus
© Clive Barda

A strong production then, but one that calls for a strong roster of singers to execute the idea and again Garsington delivered. Natalya Romaniw was simply sensational as Rusalka. Her soprano is a luxury instrument, husky and rich in the lower register and with a top that soars effortlessly. What was even more remarkable was the complex palette with which she coloured her vocal performance; I have rarely heard so much yearning in a voice. As she encountered the Prince again in Act 3, she injected doses of hope and despair in equal measure into lines such as “Do you recognise me?” to great emotional effect. Romaniw has set a tremendously high bar with this Rusalka. Singing the Prince, tenor Gerard Schneider does not quite have as big an instrument, but it’s an appealing voice, pale and refined. He seemed to bring a Lieder-like approach to his performance, an intensity melded to attention to the text and some generous displays of his higher register.

Natalya Romaniw (Rusalka) and Musa Ngqungwana (Vodník)
© Clive Barda

Musa Ngqungwana’s sonorous bass-baritone delivered Vodník’s lines with an almost religious intensity, the voice cavernous and rich, redolent with despair and aching inevitability. Christine Rice made for a compelling Ježibaba, lurking within a giant skull, layers of fabric gathered around her like some Victorian throwback, bunching together as if her evil had coalesced into a tumour lumbered onto her body. Rice’s mezzo is a dramatic instrument made for the stage, shadowing the voice with nihilistic malice and giving us moments of violent fury. Sky Ingram’s fragrant Foreign Princess was an engaging, seductive presence. 

Christine Rice (Ježibaba)
© Clive Barda

Garsington’s Artistic Director Douglas Boyd led an accomplished performance from the Philharmonia in the pit, the playing lush and spacious with the Wagnerian overtones particularly noticeable. The playing from the woodwinds deserves particular credit and the consistently fine performance from the harp was a delight. As one fled the seats for the mad dash to the carpark in the torrents, were those raindrops or teardrops sliding along the face? I couldn’t possibly comment.