Opolais, Krasteva, Baechle; Vogt, Groissböck; Chorus and Orchestra of Bayerische Staatsoper, Hanus. Production: Kušej. Kultur D4801 (2 DVDs) or BD4801 (Blu-ray), 189 mins., subtitled
Martin Kušej's assaultive, modern-dress Munich production of Rusalka is not for those who desire any kind of fairy-tale reading of Dvořák's 1901 masterwork. It's not thoughtless — Kušej certainly mines the copious "dark" side of Kvapil's libretto — but it's often gratuitous, with the kind of bloody, squalid images and action now so universal in European Regietheater that one wonders how audiences don't just break into laughter. The palace dance features a crowd in wedding gowns, including — oh, how transgressive! — several men. At the top of Act II, the Huntsman cuts open a deer carcass and strews entrails and blood all over.
The DVD is most worth experiencing — some might say enduring — for an excellent central performance by Kristine Opolais. The Latvian soprano won instant acclaim at Covent Garden last year as Butterfly and joins the Met next season as Rondine's Magda, which should be well worth hearing. Opolais is physically lovely, resembling Bewitched's Elizabeth Montgomery, and she moves well onstage. Unlike several of today's camera-worthy supposed stars, Opolais can really sing. Her timbre isn't especially distinctive, but her voice is clear and fluid, and her phrasing is quite expressive. In Act I, she sounds more like a lyric soprano, lacking the opulence of Gabriela Beňačková or even Renée Fleming (the modern standards, live and recorded, in this role). But more voice emerges after her fateful transformation, and — much put upon by her director — she gives us a moving, convincing Rusalka.
Tomáš Hanus's sweeping conducting of his expert forces forms the second pillar of this powerful enterprise. Janina Baechle has a large, unprepossessing mezzo and an imposing personality that suits Kušej's Begbick-ish conception of Ježibaba. Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva launches herself fully into playing the Foreign Princess as a cheap, alcohol-swilling Kardashian clone, who, with her undergarments around her ankles, welcomes the Prince's vigorous phallic thrusts against a wall (as Rusalka cringes). Krasteva's tone is hard and penetrating — not a subtle performance but fun. I've heard many sopranos sound worse in this Zwischenfach role.
Through awkward close-ups, video director Thomas Grimm manages to make singers often cited for attractiveness sometimes appear repellent. In Kušej's scheme, Günther Groissböck's Vodník seems to be a low-life pimp and violator of Rusalka and a fleet of girls, including the sonorous Wood Nymphs. Cigarettes, beer-swilling and a dirty bathrobe prevail — how frequently such "materialist" readings condescend to working-class life! — and he stabs the Huntsman to death. But it all gets confused by the character's sympathetic music. Groissböck vocalizes well despite a top that is audibly short in sustained phrases. Klaus Florian Vogt, as the Prince, continues the search for roles that suit his magnified choir-boy sound as well as Lohengrin does. He shirks nothing; predictably, he's best in high, floated phrases.
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