The Royal Opera House's Rusalka: were the directors right?

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Giant pantomime cats, skimpy costumes and plenty of blood. Covent Garden's Rusalka has certainly raised a few eyebrows – but, asks Elizabeth Davis, are directors ever right to dramatically change an opera's setting?

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Rusalka Royal Opera HouseA pale young woman, dressed in a blood-drenched corset and limp wedding veil stares down at the body of the Prince she’s just killed: this is Dvořák 's Rusalka, but not as you know it.

The Czech composer’s faiytale opera tells the story of a water nymph who switches her fishy tail for a pair of legs so she can be with a human Prince. And despite being over 100 years old, the opera had never been staged at Covent Garden – until this spring.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production was first produced in Salzburg in 2008 and has been met with a mixed reaction at Covent Garden – to say the least. The Independent called it ‘an incomprehensible travesty’, The Financial Times, on the other hand, declared it ‘theatrically exhilarating and musically compelling’ – although Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting has been almost universally praised.

The production has come in for the sharpest criticism as a result of the directors’ decision to move the opera from its forest setting to a small-town brothel so that Rusalka and her water nymph sisters become prostitutes, and the witch Ježibaba a sort of Madam. All of which seems to beg the question: should directors be faithful to the composer’s original setting? A conductor wouldn’t change a composer’s score, why does a director get free rein?

Dvořák's opera is no stranger to controversial updating – Bayerische Staatsoper recently reimagined the work through the prism of the Josef Fritzl case, with the water nymphs trapped in a cellar guarded by the water goblin (see video clip). And this is hardly the first time that Royal Opera House itself has gone beyond the conventional – in a more light-hearted vein, for example, it recently played host to a revival of a well-received production of Così fan tutte in which director Jonathan Miller decided to transpose Mozart’s comedy into the 21st century, mobile phones and all. So why has Wieler and Morabito’s production provoked such a reaction?

Could it be because watching their Rusalka felt like witnessing a metaphorical tug-of-war – with Dvořák's story on one side and a different plot super-imposed by the director on the other? The result was a production which didn’t seem to have faith in the work it was supposed to be communicating – or the audience’s ability to pick up on its subtleties.

Rusalka is already a powerful story about the loss of innocence, human frailty and the pain of being an outsider – the water nymph doesn’t need to be thrown around the room by the Prince’s courtiers for the audience to get the message. Nor does her tail have to be clawed off by a giant black tom-cat for her transformation to be moving.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with changing an opera’s setting to shine a new light on the work. In the world of theatre it’s commonplace for Shakespeare’s plays to be transported to a different era. In the best productions, these changes enhance the opera or play, they bring different resonances to bear and create a fruitful dialogue between the original work and the era to which it’s been moved. But when this tactic fails, the artist’s work is left flailing – like a fish out of water.

Rusalka runs at the Royal Opera House until 14 March and will be broadcast on Radio 3's 'Opera on 3' in June

 

Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine