Scottish Opera’s take on an ‘off the radar’ show stars an old friend… and real fish
If Rusalka is Dvořák’s best opera, why, in Scottish Opera’s 54-year history, has it never found its way into the company’s repertoire? That’s a question I asked new musical director Stuart Stratford, who has chosen it as the first production he will conduct since taking up the role.
“It’s a great opera, but it’s just been off the radar,” he reckons. Which is easy to understand, when you consider that Rusalka, written late in Dvořák’s life in 1901, was never performed in Britain until 1959, and has only really begun to make its mark anywhere since the dawn of the 21st century. Statistics quoted in Opera magazine a few years ago revealed that 2011 was a record year with 192 performances worldwide, compared with a mere 33 ten years earlier, and only 11 in 1996.
Yet it has lots going for it: a fairy tale loaded with symbolism and meaning; a score, beyond the show-stopping Song to the Moon, in which Dvořák finally found a truly convincing operatic vehicle for his symphonic genius; and enough flexibility in the dramaturgy to fire a good stage director’s imagination.
Many in the UK still gauge Rusalka’s success as an opera from memories of David Pountney’s highly acclaimed 1980s Freudian production for the now struggling English National Opera. Different approaches have brought mixed results, from a racy Royal Opera House production heartily booed in 2012 to the honest simplicity and inventiveness of Antony McDonald’s 2011 Grange Park Opera staging.
Scottish Opera’s production, which opens this week in Glasgow, originates from the latter, with the dual-roled McDonald reinterpreting his stage direction and designs for Scottish audiences. The one other legacy from the original is soprano Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role of Rusalka, the water nymph who forfeits her voice in a deal to pursue love as a human. Stratford himself had no connection with the original staging, but instantly felt a part of a production he describes as “a wonderful musical staging”.
“Antony is absolutely in control of all the elements,” he believes. “He and choreographer Lucy Burge have come up with a wonderful kinetic atmosphere, wonderful movement that goes with the music hand in glove.”
For Stratford, though, the musical score is every bit as irresistible as the visual experience. “Dvořák was absolutely at the height of his powers in this, his penultimate opera, and yet it contains a lot of material reminiscent of the late symphonies.
“He really knew how to create atmosphere, making detailed notes of what happened on stage, and responding to these with the most beautiful music”. So, Stratford adds, when Czech librettist Jaroslav Kvapil writes that “the red sun sinks over the horizon”, Dvořák ’s answer is a huge, rich brass chorale. “The musical language of Rusalka is uniquely exotic, but with characterisations that are both Wagnerian and Verdian in essence”.
Not wanting to give too much away, Stratford describes this spruced-up Rusalka as having “a kind of Victorian flavour”. Equally, he says, it combines beauty with harsh images of realism. “Rusalka is a mermaid who wants to become human, and the only way to do that is to mutilate herself. When that happens, it’s quite graphic, not for the squeamish. But it’s also about her exploring her sexuality, experiencing all the joys of human life which she couldn’t do as a mermaid.”
Besides Duprels as Rusalka, this cast sees the welcome return to Scottish Opera of a fond old friend, Sir Willard White, as the mermaid’s father. “It’s a real pleasure to be working with such a huge personality who is so obviously popular with the company,” says Stratford of the bass-baritone who created memorable roles for himself in Scottish Opera’s busier past.
Among the stranger cast members are actual creatures of the sea. “They’re obviously dead, but yes, we have real fish on stage,” Stratford reveals. To help with the scales, presumably.
• Scottish Opera’s production of Dvořák’s Rusalka is at the Theatre Royal Glasgow, 5, 7 and 9 April; and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 14 and 16 April, www.scottishopera.org.uk