RUSALKA | London, Royal Opera House

Dvořák’s 1901 opera, which he called a “lyric fairy tale”, has only been fully staged once before in the Royal Opera’s history, for six performances in 2012. This new production, created and directed by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, uses traditional staging and design (Chloe Lamford, Annemarie Woods), in a significant tonal contrast from 2012’s new-money-trash aesthetic.

The Czech fairy tale is better known to Britons in its Danish incarnation as The Little Mermaid. Presenting the eponymous water sprite (Asmik Grigorian) and her father (Aleksei Isaev) as traditionally ethereal beings, within the realistic, natural setting of a mysterious woodland pool, the focus is on presenting the opera’s story accurately, rather than any underlying symbolism.

Weirdly, this is the complete opposite of the directors’ intentions, who claim to have created a “poetic” and “contemporary” staging, in which Rusalka is a symbol for our planet’s oceans, and the Prince (David Butt Philip) is a symbol for humanity’s mistreatment of them. Keen-eyed audiences who watched the Royal Opera’s accompanying Insights programme may spot a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the second act where one courtly guest pours a substance that looks like crude oil, which appears to have polluted the woodland pool in the third act. Otherwise, this staging seems about as concerned with ecology as Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Musically, the cast are superb – Aleksei Isaev’s menacing, full-bodied baritone is worth the price of admission alone. And the four-hour tale whips by thanks to pacy and energised conducting by Semyon Bychkov, which brings out the theatricality of the score. While technically a failure in the eyes of the directors, the opera itself is success.

Playing at London’s Royal Opera House 21 February – 7 March 2023.

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