The eponymous heroine of Dvořák’s Rusalka is a water-sprite from the woods and lakes of Middle European fairy-tale, very much the territory familiar to ballet lovers in Giselle and Swan Lake. But the opera is no cheerful romantic tale: rather, it has all the elements of classical tragedy: hubris in Rusalka’s desire to reach a humanity to which she should not aspire, nemesis as she turns into the prince’s destroyer, welcome comic relief in the servants' scenes and catharsis in the form of the final love scene.

Jezibaba © Alastair Muir
Jezibaba
© Alastair Muir

It’s a strong cocktail, and I loved Antony McDonald’s staging for Grange Park Opera. For the second time in a week (see my review of Don Pasquale), I found myself marvelling at a production of great simplicity and great inventiveness in which the director throws all of his energy into bringing out the essence of the story, rather than inventing a new one of his own. Rusalka’s lake was incredibly simple but effective, created from a series of undulating foam blocks in a lowered area in the stage, in which she and her father and sisters can swim around and dip out of sight below the waves. It was flanked by the brightly lit cottage of Ježibaba the witch which moved gently closer to centre stage as the action demanded. The attention to detail was extraordinary: amongst many examples, the most eye-catching was when Ježibaba transforms Rusalka from mermaid into human: what has been a beautiful fish tail turns into a pair of legs that are bruised and battered from the surgery of being cut apart. Anne-Sophie Duprels acted the role superbly: as a mermaid, she is vivacious and headstrong; as a human in the prince’s palace, she is, literally, a fish out of water - unable to speak, barely able to walk and distressed by everything around her. The costumes for the court scene were memorable, with twenties-style dresses mimicking the mermaids' fish tails.

What makes Rusalka such an extraordinary opera is that Dvořák was a major symphonic composer writing at the height of his powers. Written at the time of the peak of the verismo movement in Italy, (Rusalka is roughly contemporary with Tosca) it takes opera in a very different direction. There’s a vivid musical palette to cover the moments of lyricism, romance, family love and evocation of the landscape, and when Dvořák decides to hit you between the eyes, the music has phenomenal impact. Conductor Stephen Barlow and the English Chamber Orchestra did it full justice: at times, I had an almost physical feeling of being pushed back into my seat by the power of it all.

In the singing, the show was stolen by the older characters. Clive Bayley gave a wonderful account of Rusalka’s father: his voice had melody, character and authority: his repeated refrain of Rusalko bledá (poor Rusalka) was haunting. Emma Carrington was a splendid Ježibaba: smooth and powerful in every part of her register, sardonic and with a perfect witch’s cackle (she was also striking: young, glamorous and very tall). Anne-Sophie Duprels sung beautifully in Act I, carrying off the famous Song to the moon with style, but I felt she was beginning to flag by the end of what is a very demanding role. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sung the Prince in very much a Wagnerian heldentenor style: he achieved the power and the swagger, but although the Act I duet with Rusalka went well, his voice often tended towards a bark and I didn’t get the confidence that he was going to hit every note.

Dvořák wrote Rusalka towards the end of his life. As explained in Fiona Maddocks’s excellent biographical programme note, he wrote shortly before his death that In the last five years ... I wanted to devote all my powers, as long as God gives me health, to the creation of opera. Not, nowhere, out of any vain desire for glory but because I consider opera the most suitable form for the nation. It would seem no exaggeration to say that Dvořák saw Rusalka as a crowning achievement of a life’s work, and on the basis of last night’s production, I can’t disagree.