Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Rusalka, Festival Theatre, Review

EIF, Rusalka.

**** (4 stars)

Rusalka is a water nymph who’s fallen in love with a prince who is drawn to the lake in the forest in which she lives.  Despite the warnings of the Water Goblin Vodník, she seeks the help of Ježibaba the witch, and agrees to sacrifice her voice in order to become human, knowing full well that if she fails to win and keep the prince’s love, she will be condemned to live at the deepest level of the lake, cut off from her previous life and the sisters she loves. 

At first the Prince is enchanted by the mysterious, silent woman he finds beside the lake, but soon succumbs to the lures being cast by the Foreign Princess who’s been invited to the wedding celebrations.  Rusalka, alone and desolate, neither nymph nor human, returns to the lake where she is sought by the Prince: he has realised his mistake and is heartbroken without her.  She warns him that if she kisses him, he will die: he gladly invites her embrace and dies content, while she, redeemed, walks towards the light.

Rusalka is full of fabulous music but my, it seemed long! I fear Dvorak’s compositional skill wasn’t really matched by strong dramatic instincts: and the production didn’t help, with anover-busy middle act spoiling the intensity of the outer two.

But let’s have the good news first.

Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard took on the role of Rusalka at the last minute, replacing an indisposed Natalya Romaniw who was to sing Rusalka: and boy, did she deliver!  Elin has a fabulous voice which was a joy to listen to and a flexible body which expressed Rusalka’s delight in her watery home; her desperation to become human for the prince she loves; the challenges of inhabiting a solidly human body; and the slow withering of her tender hope of happiness in the inhospitable human world she paid such a price to enter.  Her bewilderment at this strange world was clear as she tried to imitate the movements of the guests at the wedding, hoping to fit in, but was mocked and then ignored, while her attempts to intervene between the Prince and the Foreign Princess were equally fruitless and resulted in a heartbreaking rejection.

The Prince, though not the most admirable character – vacillating, easily tempted, and insensitive – was superbly sung by Gerard Schneider.  His strong clear ardent tone went with very easy top notes.  Musa Ngqungwana’s magnificent stage presence served him well as Vodník, though I found his powerful voice at times hollow in tone.  It was a delight to see Christine Rice doing a magnificent job of terrifying everyone as Ježibaba, while the Foreign Princess was a nasty piece of work excellently portrayed by Sky Ingram. 

The three Wood Nymphs – Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards – blended beautifully and weren’t in the least bit phased by the six aerialists, led by Victoria McManus, who leapt, jumped, cartwheeled and soared through the air wrapped in ropes.  The minor comic roles which also served to outline the plot at ties were all well sung, particularly Grace Durham’s sparky cook’s apprentice and John Findon’s huntsman.  I was disappointed not to see Mark Nathan, who’s had such a notable year as one of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists [particularly as Giuseppe in the Gondoliers] – he too was indisposed and his part ably sung by James Geidt.

The Philarmonia Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Boyd, was superb: rippling lyrically, darkly menacing, boldly hunting, and very lively in all the ‘folky’ bits.  It’s possible to think of the score of Rusalka as having only one tune – the heroine’s Song to the Moon, fragments of which are heard whenever she appears: but the more I listen to it, the more there is to hear.

The set was amazing.  Having seen a production photo I couldn’t see why a large disc with a hole in it hung above the stage – but in action everything made sense, even if at times one feared someone would either fall through the hole or be crushed by the disc.  The tiltable disc served to separate the two elements, land and water, and rose or fell to reveal more or less of the rich underwater life invisible to those living on land.  The use of both lighting and real water was very effective –  but the latter was a huge distraction every time I thought of the poor wardrobe people having to dry all those wet costumes.  I also worried about those cast members who had to wait under the disc [crouching?] for it to be raised…

The contrast with the act which takes place on dry land was shocking: as the curtain rose we saw a grand hall with a high ceiling from which dangled many carcasses of deer killed in the hunt.  Nobody at the Prince’s stiff and formal court seemed particularly happy, unlike the water-dwellers who revelled in their free-flowing life.  The cook’s apprentice and the hunter were the only light relief, and the ritual humiliation of Rusalka – far too explicit in this production – was the culmination of a way of life which saw cruelty as the norm.

Act 2 was too busy.  The outer acts concentrated on the relationships between Rusalka and the other protagonists, with no distracting action to interrupt their intensity.  The second act was fussily busy, with people walking in and out for no real reason, and a completely uncalled-for virtual stripping of Rusalka, who was then forced into a bed with the ensuing action witnessed by all the courtiers.  The Foreign Princess’s seduction of the Prince was also pretty graphic – all this byplay completely eclipsed both the music and the intense emotions it was portraying.

I was glad when the third act returned to the quiet, intense, emotional focus of the first act.  I couldn’t help thinking that it was all taking rather too long to play out [not helped by concern about late-night buses!], and wasn’t totally convinced by the closing ‘walking towards golden light’.  [I was also wondering whether the dead prince was going to get out from under the descending disc before he was crushed in the water into which he had fallen…].

The audience went wild when Elin Pritchard took a solo curtain call – deservedly so, as she did a fantastic job in her own right, let alone doing it at [presumably] ridiculously short notice.  I shall look out for her and hope she comes to Scotland again very soon.  The cast and orchestra were greeted with enthusiastic applause – but I have to confess I left early to get my bus.

Edinburgh International Festival, Rusalka, Festival Theatre, Run Ended.

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