Sunday, 16 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Rusalka

Timothy Richards as the Prince
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
This Rusalka, first unveiled in 2011, was the first Barry Kosky production at the Komische Oper for me (and only, I’m ashamed to say, my second ever after his Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015). There were some of the director’s trademarks – which I’d picked up during that Saul, as well as through discussions of his work – including a bit of cross-dressing grotesquery, but this was a production very much in line with the wonderful Homoki Meistersinger I’d enjoyed so much last week.

The set is again simple, consisting of little more than a smaller recessed version of the Komische Oper’s proscenium arch around a wall with a door – a bench sits stage left. Dress was, I guess, modern with the occasional Victorian twist: the Prince wore formal white tie; the Foreign Princess was high-class (pipe-smoking) exotic call-girl; Vodnìk, at least as presented by Jens-Erik Aasbø, had some sort of stoic Scandinavian hipster fisherman thing going on.

Rusalka herself, in one of numerous clever but apparently simple touches, had what she wore defined by the Prince, stepping in and out of whatever he presented her with with an increasingly joyless sense of duty. Indeed, Kosky makes it clear right from the start the extent of Rusalka’s tragedy: she has her tail removed in a painful and graphic procedure carried out by Ježibaba and her sadistic simpleton son (the fish skeleton extracted as part of this becomes a visual leitmotif for the production); her happiness is so fleeting as to barely register, while her misery and loneliness in her new life is constantly underlined.

Click to enlarge
But what might have become mawkish, or simple depressing, is compelling and beautiful here, thanks both to the detailed direction and to Nadja Mchantaf’s powerfully committed central performance. Her victimhood is never passive; we see her trying to speak, exasperatedly mouthing words that don’t come, and we get a sense of defiance and strength as she is tossed helplessly about, even if that resistance is ultimately fruitless.

The simplicity of the set creates powerful and evocative dreamlike world: the door becomes a focus, for example, and we never know what characters dredged up from the dark unconscious are going to appear through it next. The only hint of water comes in an ingenious projection effect early in Act 3, where the proscenium arches are made to undulate and shimmer; but Rusalka’s otherness is underlined throughout, as is her closeness to other water-borne creatures – ultimately we’re left with an image that seems to say that the human world cares about her as much as it cares for the dying fish that we see being prepared for the banquet.

A fascinating and moving production, then, which only seems to overstep the mark during that first scene in Act 3, where rather too many extras are thrown into the mix, to the detriment of focus and clarity. And, as I’ve already hinted, Mchantaf’s central performance is terrific: dramatically fearless and sung tirelessly with a voice of gleaming security. Although it must be said that she was probably the least successful in getting the words of the German translation across, and, if one’s going to be picky, her phrasing might have had more limpidity to it.

Timothy Richards’s Prince was small-scale, the voice well focused but a little short on heft and ring, but he rose impressively to his big moments. Nadine Weissmann’s Ježibaba was a good mixture of serious and grotesque, and, given the German version (and the fact that I’d seen her in the role in Bayreuth) made me think of an Erda who’d had rather too many special herbal brews. The German text also underlined the similarities between Vodník and Alberich, as well as, of course, the closeness of the Wood Sprites to the Rhine Maidens – Aasbø sang resonantly if a little stiffly as the former; Annika Gerhards, Maria Fiselier and Katarzyna Włodarczyk seemed to be having great fun as the latter. The grandly named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen turned in a grandly – and excitingly – sung Foreign Princess. Christiane Oertel made a strong impression as the Kitchen Boy; Ivan Turšić’s Game Keeper, here a one-armed knife-wielding chef, will also stick in the memory.

Vodnìk and the Wood Sprites – from the original cast (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

In the pit, Henrik Nánási and his players seemed to take a little while to warm up. The orchestra’s balance could be strange (possibly due to the acoustics from my seat) and occasionally Dvórak’s melodies didn’t flow like they should – the Song to the Moon felt a little chopped up, as did Vodnìk’s Act 2 aria. But the conductor clearly loves this score – as anyone with ears surely should – and offered some impressively Wagnerian climaxes, along with plenty of tenderness.

Further performances this season on October 21 and 30, November 4 and 20, December 22. 

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