Rusalka

Antonín Dvořák Rusalka opera to libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil. Directed 2010 by Martin Kušej at the Nationaltheater, Munich. Stars Kristīne Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Günther Groissböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß, Tara Erraught, John Chest, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, and Okka von der Damerau. Tomáš Hanus conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester with the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus Master Sören Eckhoff) and the Statisterie und Kinderstatisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Set design by Martin Zehetgruber; costume design by Heidi Hackl; lighting design by Reinhard Traub; dramatic advisory by Olaf A. Schmitt; TV direction by Thomas Grimm. Released 2011, disc has has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. This disc plays in all regions. But it is by contract not distributed in Region A on a regular basis. Kultur has the rights to sell this Rusalka in Region A, and Kuture has come out with its own version that appears to be identical except for logos in the package artwork and the like.  Grade: A

Kušej's Rusalka story has three levels of meaning:
1.  The base level is the traditional fairy tale of a water nymph whose infatuation with a human Prince leads both to disaster.
2.  Kušej adds a true-crime (or "thriller") level by presenting the nymphs as girls locked in a watery dungeon to be raped at the pleasure of  their water goblin "father" (with help from his wife, the witch).
3.  Finally, Kušej asserts that many of the old fairy tales were admonitions about human trafficking. Well, the fairy tales are almost forgotten, but the trafficking continues.

In addition to rape in the dungeon, Kušej also changes the kitchen boy to a girl who is groped and later nearly murdered by her lecherous uncle. I asked myself, "Is all this going too far?" Well, the very next morning, I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about Yolanda Méndez, who at age 11 was sold by her parents in Mexico to her uncle. The uncle took Yolanda to Dallas and kept her locked up as his "mistress" for years until she escaped. (The uncle is now in prison.)

Yolanda's story silenced any criticism I had of Kušej's topical and allegorical overlays. After reading a bit about Joseph Fritzl (Austria), Natastha Kampush (Austria), and Jaycee Dugard (California), it finally dawned on me what real-world cases most closely relate to the Kušej's dungeon. Both involved religious figures in Texas: the David Koresh (Branch Davidian) catastrophe and the recent Warren Jeffs case, where a polygamist was convicted of the rape of many extremely young "wives," usually with the active approval of the mothers of the girls. Both these cases involved systematic persuasion of everyone involved by father figures who had rationalised their crimes in their own minds.

I previously gave Kušej the stingy grade of "C+" for his HDVDs of Genoveva, Elektra, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I thought his attempts to shock us in those productions were either too obscure or silly to take seriously. But subject Rusalka is a winner for Martin in every way.

As is explained in the informative bonus feature, a Kušej project requires actors who can sing, not singers who try to act. Well, in this production everybody can do both. They say Opolais (who stared in The Gambler HDVD), turned down a Met debut (as Musetta) to work with Kušej. This decision took guts and smarts, and it appears to have paid off for her with accelerated fame in Europe. Vogt, perfect as the wan and ethereal Prince, has proved already his acting and singing prowess to HDVD fans in Lohengrin, Lulu, and Meistersinger as well as his solo singing ability in the Bruckner Te Deum. (Trivia question: both Ulrich Reß and John Chest appear in what other HDVD? Answer: the Bayerische Staatsoper Dialogue des Camélites.)

Tomáš Hanus successfully coordinates Dvořák's romantic music to the wild action on stage. Any time you think the plot is about to spin out of control, Hanus is there with some reassuring Dvořák melody and harmony to calm things down. So with that are you ready for some screen shots?

The nymphs in the basement hear the Water Goblin coming:

Father wants to get married. This time it might be me:

A good guess:

Rusalka:

Now that Father's in a good mood, it's time to have a talk. Rusalka has fallen in love with a human Prince who swims in the lake:

Rusalka sings the celebrated Song to the Moon:

Father allows Rusalka to leave her watery home, and he sends her to the witch. The witch explains what the price will be if Rusalka joins the Prince and he is ever unfaithful to her:

Rusalka meets the Prince on dry land. He falls madly in love with Rusalka and announces he will marry her:

Rusalka loves the Prince more than ever, but she is horrified by the hot world of humans with their incessant survival instincts for blood:

And for sex. Puzzled by Rusalka's coldness, the Prince gets seduced by the aggressive foreign Princess:

It's time for Rusalka's  wedding feast. A normal human dinner looks as barbaric to Rusalka as the feast shown below looks to us:

What table manners!

Kušej likes to symbolise isolation and alienation by building small stages inside the big stage (see, for example, the tunnel-like courtyard in Elektra). In Rusalka, Kušej has, of course, his dungeon for a lake. But the stroke of genius comes with what is probably the smallest stage he has built: the Rusalka aquarium. Poor Rusalka finds relief by jumping into the family aquarium. The image is both logical and unforgettable---it may well become an icon symbolizing contemporary 21st century opera (no goldfish were harmed in the making of this opera):

Rusalka flees the castle and seeks out the witch for advice. There is only one way for Rusalka to escape damnation: the Prince must die by Rusalka's hand:

But before Rusalka can return to the Prince, the Water Goblin is busted by the vice squad. The girls are taken to a clinic for rehab. The girls are only interested in their water bottles, which they use to stay wet:

The Prince, distraught with remorse for his sin with the foreign Princess, finds Rusalka:

The Prince knows the law, but he begs for one more kiss. With this kiss, the Prince stabs himself with the witch's knife:

 

And so we have a happy ending, at least for the Prince:

But what about  Rusalka? Where will she go now?

All the action is photographed and recorded with startling clarity. Under Thomas Grimm, the show is presented almost as a motion picture. The producers wanted and got it all: sold out live performances and an HDVD that sets new standards for quality in presentation for the home theater audience. It was less than two years ago that Rusalka was the talk of all Munich and the European opera world---now I can see for myself in my home theater what all the commotion was about. Earlier I gave this an "A" grade, rather than an "A+," because I thought the wedding party scene was too garish for many people. But on reviewing this again, I'm moving my grade up to "A+."

P.S. Talking about gore, Kušej wanted to skin real deer on stage and had the requisite animals reserved at a specially slaughterhouse. There was a huge uproar about this, and the producers at the last minute agreed to substitute props for real deer. Was this an actual fight or just a PR stunt?

Here's the C Major trailer: