Staging fairytale opera is fraught with pitfalls. Spread the Freudian symbolism too thick and the audience feels like they’ve been at a psychotherapy session, not an opera. Go for vivid horror or opulent glamour and you’re in a competition with Hollywood that you cannot possibly win. So when someone gets to writing the fairytale section of the textbook on opera staging, they should give pride of place to Melly Still’s Glyndebourne 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, now making its first return to Glyndebourne Festival (although it’s travelled widely in the meantime).

Sally Matthews (Rusalka) © Tristram Kenton
Sally Matthews (Rusalka)
© Tristram Kenton

Still has complete mastery of theatrical effect. How to depict Rusalka’s sisters swimming in the lake? Answer: use the full height of the stage, fly them in from above, preceded by the sudden unfurling of 20-foot long tails, bringing a collective gasp from audience – rather than being standard mermaids, these sprites are half-woman, half-giant-pondweed. Or use black theatre technique (a nod to the opera’s Czechness, perhaps) to have a white-clad dancer on the stage swoop and rise, with exquisite choreography. In Act 2, how to depict the arrival of Vodník, Rusalka’s father – whom only Rusalka can see? Most directors would use freeze-frame: Still and her lighting designer Paule Constable freeze the action for only a moment, then give us the subtlest of spotlighting effects to pick out the father and daughter while the party carries on in the background.

Sally Matthews, Evan LeRoy Johnson and Glyndebourne Chorus © Tristram Kenton
Sally Matthews, Evan LeRoy Johnson and Glyndebourne Chorus
© Tristram Kenton

Still doesn’t try to turn the whole stage into photorealistic fairytale. Rather, she feeds us a whole series of cues that we remember from stories we’ve read over the years, to place us in the fairytale setting without our having to be conscious of how it's been done. In Act 1, we all recognise the witch's cauldron. At the ball in Act 2, the catwalk down which the Prince leads Rusalka evokes countless Cinderellas. In Act 3, simple lights sewn into Rusalka’s voluminous skirt mark her out as having become a will-of-the-wisp. And Still doesn’t duck the fact that the heart of this story is about sex – the water-sprites’ nature as sexual predators is clearly and imaginatively portrayed.

Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra were every bit as vivid in their illumination of Dvořák’s score. The repeated harp motif rang out clear and true. The strings were lush and beautifully phrased. Woodwind lines were persuasive and rich in timbre. Tempi and accenting were immaculately judged.

Patricia Bardon (Ježibaba) © Tristram Kenton
Patricia Bardon (Ježibaba)
© Tristram Kenton

What Ticciati fails to do, however, is to balance the orchestra and the voices – perhaps not helped by a lack of hard materials on the set behind them to help the singers project. Almost everyone suffered, most particularly in Act 1, including singers who usually have big voices like Sally Matthews in the title role, and Patricia Bardon as the witch Ježibaba. Both threw themselves into their roles and sang with great character, but both struggled to be heard, especially at the low end of their register.

Evan LeRoy Johnson (Prince) © Tristram Kenton
Evan LeRoy Johnson (Prince)
© Tristram Kenton

The two singers who overcame the orchestra were both making their Glyndebourne debuts with this production. Young American tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson is a talent to watch for: he has both stage presence and vocal presence by the bucketload (being tall and good looking doesn’t hurt). The Prince’s arrival in Act 1 was the first time that we could sit back and luxuriate in the pure vocal lyricism. Zoya Tsererina was also able to cut through the orchestra and give a well characterised account of the Foreign Princess. A third debutant, Alexander Roslavets as Vodník, gave us heartfelt expression and lovely timbre, but lacked the heft to overcome the orchestra. A special mention goes to the gamekeeper and his niece – Colin Judson and Alix Le Saux – whose two comic relief episodes, the palace servants’ chatter in Act 2 and their venture into the woods in Act 3, were greatly entertaining.

Rusalka is and opera of big themes and emotions: the dangers of denying one’s nature, the question of true love versus infatuation, the perils of sexuality, the heartbreak of a love that goes sour. Throughout its length, this performance dragged us into the big emotions and made us part of them. And at the end came the biggest theme of all, about the value of forgiveness. It had us choking back the tears.

****1