Scottish Opera: Rusalka | Rating: ***** | Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Added to which, the fairly tale plot – a mermaid, Rusalka, who sacrifices her voice and soul to experience human love – is as perfect a vehicle for Romantic opera as you’ll find.
Yet here we were on Tuesday, many of us seeing this substantial Dvorak masterpiece for the first time, and asking that same question. Even the overture is a musical jewel, from which Dvorak develops a seamless, theatrically red-hot musical narrative, as heavily dependent on Wagnerian backbone as it is representative of the then-emerging Czech style of Janacek, a rhythmic distinctiveness shaped by the staccato inflexions of the Czech language.
This is conductor Stuart Stratford’s first production since joining Scottish Opera as musical director, and with one of two minor reservations – the part-time orchestra always takes a few performances these days to get back into perfect shape after frequent breaks in transmission – he has engineered one of the company’s finest musical triumphs of recent years.
He has a magnificent cast to work with, and a production and designs by Anthony McDonald, originally conceived for Grange Park Opera in 2008, that give physical and emotional substance to an essentially lightweight story. The marriage of music and theatre is visceral; the feelings are real, and in some cases – Rusalka’s surgical transformation to human under the knife of the witch Ježibaba – visibly gory.
The setting is Victorian, but with a timeless naturalism that gives universality to the message. Anne Sophie Duprels’ portrayal of Rusalka is vocally vibrant and all-encompassing, literally a fish out of water, whose true being can never be shaken off in a strange world of human love, weakness and deceit. Willard White is perfectly cast as her father, a spirit of the deep whose understanding and affection are both a powerful weakness and strength.
Peter Wedd finds lustre and passion in the soaring tenor role of the Prince. Leah-Marian Jones invests rich dark sonorities in that of the witch. Natalya Romaniw is unflinchingly manipulative as the Foreign Princess.
But this is a victorious team effort, in which supporting singers, dancers and that exquisite musical score are all fused into a hugely satisfying whole.
• Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 14 and 16 April