Most opera productions these days fall into two categories: straight and concept. Each has its risks: straight productions of established repertoire works can leave you wanting something new, while concept productions can leave you bemused and disconnected from the work. Jiři Heřman's production of Dvořák's Rusalka for Czech National Theatre Opera is in neither of these categories: it's a production that is visually different and exciting and one that brings out the watery soul of the work without attempting to impose anything extraneous on it.

František Zahradníček( VodnÍk) and Dana Burešová (Rusalka) © Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert
František Zahradníček( VodnÍk) and Dana Burešová (Rusalka)
© Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert

You actually get two shows in one, because, in addition to the set piece ballet in Act II, Heřman makes extensive use of the National Theatre Ballet's dancers throughout the work. Frequently, dancers portray the actions of the main characters in movement while the singers portray them in words and music, a technique which permits striking visuals without impairing the singers' ability to project their voices. Figures are often silhouetted, sets are plain, lighting is intense and there's much use of smoke: the styling draws very much on the Czech genres of mime and black light theatre. 

From the very first note, Zbyněk Müller conducted Dvořák's score at full throttle. Woodwind colours shone through brightly, string textures were varied, harp arpeggios shimmered, hunting horns were evocative. Most of all, the dance rhythms lifted us off our feet and whirled us, in the mind's eye, across the stage.

All this was very wonderful for everyone except the unfortunate singers, who were being expected to somehow compete with the immense waves of sound coming out of the pit. Some managed better than others, but no-one dared attempt a real pianissimo for the entire evening. None the less, some of the singers seriously impressed, not least František Zahradniček, who showed admirable versatility in moving from the buffo role of last night's Leporello to the powerful lyrical role of Rusalka's father, Vodník the water goblin. Zahradniček sang with power and dignity, both in anger and in sadness; his Act II lament, about how he can do nothing to save his daughter from her fate, was heartbreaking. Dana Burešová sang the title role beautifully, solid across her whole range and able to soar above the orchestral wash.

Wood sprites (Rusalka) © Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert
Wood sprites (Rusalka)
© Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert

Rusalka has two significant characters from the Dark Side: the witch Ježibaba, who works the magic that leads Rusalka to her ruin (not, it must be said, without giving Rusalka full disclosure of what she is letting herself in for) and the Foreign Princess, who leads the Prince astray and then discards him, motivated by nothing more than injured pride at being upstaged by some pallid alien beauty. In this production, the roles were both sung by Jolana Fogašová. Dramatically, combining the roles works well, bringing together the two faces of evil. Musically, I'm not so sure: Fogašova seemed considerably more at home singing the flowing high lines of  the Foreign Princess than the more varied part of Ježibaba (which is usually a mezzo role), with its many staccato passages in the lower part of the register.

While Act I was immersive and thoroughly watchable, the performance really caught fire in Act II, in which the Foreign Princess disrupts Rusalka's wedding to the Prince, sung handsomely with a big, open voice by Peter Berger. The setting, based around long banquet tables which reinforce Rusalka's alienation, is illuminated - literally - in an extraordinary way: four giant candelabras into which servants install many dozens of lit candles before winching them up high. Staging, choreography, fine singing voices and that magnificent orchestral music came together to create an immensely powerful whole. The closing scene, in which Vodník arrives to berate the humans for their deceit and the Foreign Princess disdainfully rejects the Prince, was mesmerising. After all that power, Act III is a gentle catharsis. It starts with a fine comic relief interlude in which two of the palace servants fruitlessly seek Ježibaba's advice and come away terrified with a flea in their ear, and moves through to an elegiac, wistful ending which leaves you with a lump in your throat and brimming with tears. 

Rusalka Act III © Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert
Rusalka Act III
© Hana Smejkalová, Petra Hajská and Petr Neubert

I'll close this review with some general comments about the experience of seeing Czech opera here. Firstly, I believe that the best Czech language opera can match anything written in German, Italian or anything else. The trouble is, not many people outside Czech speak the language. For me - and I realise that different people feel very differently as to what's important in opera - word setting is one of opera's most important aspects. Here in Prague, the singers are virtually all native Czech speakers, so they can focus on the artistic aspects of their performance without being distracted by difficulties of language. Also, the theatre provides excellent surtitles, with every word in Czech and the vast majority translated into English. This enables me to understand both the meaning and the way the words are voiced and wrapped around with music: it enormously enhances the operatic experience.

With a production in a style with which I was not at all familiar and which I found very true to the work's spirit, this Rusalka was a memorable evening's opera.