Rusalka: Opera Review

Rating: 4

By Margaret Bemand

It’s very hard not to fall in love with Glyndebourne at any time of the year. On the first night of Rusalka, the garden was bursting with giant, exotic foliage, the elegant air-conditioned auditorium made an ice-cool palace, and the enigmatic lakes also looked particularly enticing. This was the gorgeous backdrop for their revival of Dvořák’s Rusalka, the Slavic legend of a water-bound nymph who falls in love with an earth-bound Prince. It’s a parabolic tale – even Disney has its own version – and a melancholy piece, but the music, lyrical and gorgeous, with gentle watery ripples running through it, and no lack of stridency when called for, is a complete romantic masterpiece. 

There are great songs and leitmotifs aplenty – Dvořák melds Czech folksongs into his watery melodies – the Song to the Moon, where the hopelessly lovesick Rusalka begs the moon to tell the Prince of her love, is one of the best-known and loved arias in modern repertoire. But the Czech version of this tale differs from many in that the water nymph cannot speak when she becomes human, so – astonishingly for an opera – the main character falls silent for the central act.

Much of the action is in or under water – which this production achieved without a drop of water on stage. The evocation of it is simply brilliant. There are dancers who act as reeds and seaweed, there are nymph tails that twitch by dancers’ moves; the nymphs even swim with their help. But beside this are action sequences that are gratuitous, erotic and sensational: busty forest nymphs clutch their breasts to tease the toadish head water sprite with a comical codpiece; the witches’ strange spell that seems to require shrieking of small animals as they donate whatever is demanded for the pot; the flashing of bras and knickers of the sprites in the third act and, most gratuitous of all, Rusalka’s removing of her own underwear so that she can seduce her prince. 

This piece demands huge energy from its singers, and here, as always, the Glyndebourne company delivered. The singers’ enthusiasm occasionally ran away from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Robin Ticciati in the first 15 minutes, but from then on, it was in perfect synchronicity. Principals Sally Matthews (Rusalka) and Evan LeRoy Johnson (Prince) were absolutely brilliant, and led a stonkingly good crew. There are many interpretations of this opera – it’s not exactly easy to stage – and this, despite the criticisms, is the best I have ever seen. In the final scenes, the two leads allow the beauty of this classic romantic piece to rise to the surface and finally fade into the murky depths of a fantastical watery world.

Rusalka is at Glyndebourne, Lewes, until 21 August: 01273-812321,