Rusalka Gets Wet Feet In Vienna

Vienna, September 23, 2019; Theater an der Wien—The Theater an der Wien, Vienna’s interesting opera house, put on Dvořák’s Rusalka last month, directed by Amélie Niermeyer and conducted by David Afkham. The most notable aspect about the production might well have been the set, designed by Christian Schmidt, intending to make a splash – literally – with lots and lots of water. A pond with reeds around it, doubling as a pool and fed by a canal that served as the go-between between the world of the water nymphs and the humanoid prince and covering about a third of the stage, was filled with water some 10 inches deep. With Günther Groissböck’s Water Goblin and Maria Bengtsson’s Rusalka standing calf-deep in water – she barefoot in red leggings, he fully clad with leather shoes and fully immersed before he even sang his first line – one worried about pneumonia cutting a swath through the cast after a few performances.

The splish-splash was impressive enough, but H2O does not make up for a lack of sensible blocking and proper development of the characters. Unfortunately the way the protagonists interacted didn’t always make a lot of sense or support the story. The relationship between the Water Goblin daddy and his soggy runaway daughter, for one, didn’t hit home until the very touching finale. Similarly Rusalka and her prince had implied intercourse just before the latter sings “When we are married shall I get / What love has long been seeking… / I must possess you, possess you at last!” It may have been tempting to stage a sexy bedroom scene coming into the second act, but it didn’t make much sense at that point.

“Implied”, by the way, is an understatement: The full frontal nudity on the part of the exhibitionist prince (Ladislav Elgr) left little to the imagination. It turns out that Ladislav Elgr left it all on the stage in more than one way: by the time he sang his last bits in duet with the undead Rusalka, he croaked rather worryingly. When Rusalka finally kissed him dead, it really was a credible mercy killing. One bright spot about the direction was the pre-recorded video of dancing guests at the prince’s party that was superimposed on the purposefully static chorus (the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus), avoiding much overacting-awkwardness. Their rendition of “White flowers along the way” toward the end of the second act was a highlight of the evening.

Günther Groissböck cut a dashing but ambiguous, slightly haphazard figure here, neither nasty like his creepy Fritzl-esque (referring to the Austrian who kept his incestuous children locked in the basement) Water Goblin in Martin Kušej’s superb Munich production of Rusalka, nor indecisively loving or misunderstood. One is inclined not to care with him, because the vocal delivery is top notch. But the regret about missed opportunities lingers, given his acting-ability. More or less the same goes for the even- and light-voiced Bengtsson, who is a dramatic gem, usually able to make something out of nothing. She looks naturally uncomfortable, as she should, as the party scene turns into a hazing party and collective taunting of Rusalka by the guests. But how much more effective was that scene with Kušej where, out of desperate alienation, his Rusalka (Kristine Opolais) climbed into a big aquarium to feel a little more at home!

The three sister-nymphs were a delight: First Nymph Ilona Revolskaya, with a strong and channeled voice tinted by typical Eastern European coloring; the lighter, elegant, and agile Mirella Hagen, having been a fabulous Forrest Bird in Bayreuth’s Castorf-Ring, here traded feathers for scales as the Second Nymph; Tatiana Kuryatnikova, earthy, eastern, and with volume-enhancing vibrato, was the distinctive Third Nymph. A clarion, fresh-voiced Juliette Mars, in the fairly minor role of turnspit (the kitchen boy), nearly stole the show with her great, comic acting while never hamming it up. Natascha Petrinsky’s slightly spent, hollow, smokey-voiced Ježibaba was given lesbian bordello-queen overtones. Kate Aldrich was every bit the seductive foreign princess, her vocal delivery just a little dirty and her characterization extraordinarily interesting.

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra’s dry and very adequate reading could have benefited from luster but was efficiently led by 2010 Nestlé Young Conductors Award winner David Afkham. Granted: More luminosity, sheen, or sumptuousness – I still think of the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Rusalka in Salzburg in 2008! – would have gone a long, long way in making this opera’s greatness more obvious, but faultlessness wasn’t a bad start.