Dvořák's Rusalka received a couple of concert performances at London's Royal Opera House back in 2003, courtesy of soprano Renée Fleming, the late Lithuanian tenor Sergej Larin and Czech specialist conductor Charles Mackerras; otherwise — rather surprisingly — it has never been presented there. The production by directorial duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (seen Feb. 27), created for the Salzburg Festival in 2008, represented the opera's first full staging at the venue. It is no reflection on Dvořák's heady, late-Romantic score that the piece was greeted with a chorus of boos: they were reserved entirely for the production team, including designers Barbara Ehnes (sets) and Anja Rabes (costumes), plus the revival director, Samantha Seymour.
Despite Covent Garden's neglect, Rusalka is relatively frequently encountered in the U.K. A 1983 staging by David Pountney for ENO enjoyed numerous revivals. Opera North, Glyndebourne and — with notable success — Grange Park Opera have all performed it in recent seasons. Memories of Pountney's psychologically acute and visually beautiful staging (designed by the late Stefanos Lazaridis) and of director/designer Antony McDonald's darkly magical approach at Grange Park made the Wieler–Morabito import from Salzburg seem sadly deficient.
The production was set in the 1970s. The set transferred the forest lake of the libretto to a Central European brothel, though one notably short of clients. Initially retaining the fishtail of her water-nymph original, Camilla Nylund's Rusalka was a sex-worker, her father, Alan Held's Water-Sprite (or Vodnik), a down-at-heel doorman. No moon overlooked the scene; instead Nylund sang her song to the moon to a stuffed cat. Later, in enlarged, actor-in-a-cat-suit form, the feline (played by Claire Talbot) sexually assaulted Rusalka as she transformed, with the aid of brothel madam Polish mezzo Agnes Zwierko's Ježibaba, into something human. There were other curious additions to the plot. Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt's Gamekeeper humped Belgian soprano Ilse Eerens's Kitchen Boy in Act II. In the last act, Rusalka tried to kill herself with a knife — surely a pointless gesture, since she is already faced with an eternity in a limbo of un-dead spirits. If a production of the opera could make sense in the reimagined ambience, this ugly, dramatically inconsistent and crudely visualized effort was decidedly not it.
Vocally, too, this was a mixed evening. Nylund sounded overparted in Dvořák's full-lyric assignment, her higher, climactic phrases possessing more tension than tone. Lower down, Held lacked the richness and solidity of a true bass. But Bryan Hymel's tenor Prince stood out for its firmness and power throughout the range, while Petra Lang's Foreign Princess maintained a baleful grandeur from both a physical and a sonic point of view.
Making his Royal Opera debut in the pit was French–Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He maintained clean, clear textures and gave Dvořák's dramatically motivated lyricism a keen sense of momentum, though much of the score's finer characteristic detail seemed to pass him by.