Rusalka is an opera based on a Slavic fairy tale. As is the case with many fairy tales, it has dark elements: a shattered dream of romance and happiness, death and eternal damnation. Barrie Kosky’s 2011 Komische Oper production depicts the heroine, the water nymph Rusalka, as an unstable misfit who sacrifices her voice for human form only to be betrayed by her prince. She descends into a nightmarish world of madness and is condemned to an existence as a living dead. The revival featured a vocally strong and committed ensemble of singers, dominated by Nadja Mchantaf in the title role.
The set is an open room in white with a proscenium arch. A bench is placed along the angled wall on stage left. A door, centered on the back of the stage on the white wall, is used for entrances and exits by all the performers except for Rusalka, who crawls onto the stage via an opening under the bench, accompanied by her leitmotif played by the harp. She wiggles her fingers and holds onto the legs of her father in the first scene and those of the prince in the last to propel herself through the hole. She is dressed as a mermaid at first, and her transformation into a human consists of the witch Jezibaba butchering her on an operating table to remove her fish bone, which reappears throughout the opera, signifying Rusalka’s strong identification with water.
The story moves quickly as characters enter and exit the room, and the opera unfolds as a series of vignettes in this confined space. Vodník, the water goblin, appears to be a fisherman; Rusalka’s three sisters wear black dresses and mercilessly tease her. Ježibaba has a crazy son and a black cat whose blood she feeds Rusalka. The same operating table doubles as kitchen surface for the gamekeeper and his assistants to cook fish for the wedding banquet as Rusalka looks on in horror. The Prince wears a formal attire and the Foreign Princess appears in a Chinese costume.
Act III depicts Rusalka’s increasing otherworldliness by clever use of video which features the outline of the room shifting, and dark tree branches growing. All the characters appear in long black dresses and a veil. They dance and sing around Rusalka, in her white dress, before disappearing one by one. The Prince later appears alone in search of Rusalka and asks to be killed by her kiss. As he dies, he clutches a fishing rod with Rusalka’s mouth hooked on it. Rusalka is eternally in a limbo.
The production is both claustrophobic and abstract, but it serves to delineate each main character in an uncompromising and clear manner. When Mchantaf showed Rusalka’s frustration and sadness with her facial expressions and body language, one felt for the character, whether it was a nymph or a love sick girl. None of the characters were pure good or evil; rather, the director seemed keen to explore each character’s motivations and conflicts.
Leading the excellent performance of the Orchestra of Komische Oper Berlin was Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, who brought out the elegant melodies and symphonic complexity of the score. From the brooding solo cello beginning of the overture, he uncovered layers of Dvořák’s musical genius. Together with the strong singing and intriguing production, it was a revelatory performance of this masterpiece.
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