Rusalka Review – A Gloriously Adult Mermaid

In 1989, the story was Disneyfied and given a happy ending, but between Andersen and Disney, the Czech composer Antonin Dvořak had brought us his own The Little Mermaid or Rusalka, an opera based on an adult version of the fairy tale, also influenced by by various Eastern European mermaid myths.

Rusalka, in the new version of ROH, is a water sprite, the daughter of Vodnik, the water spirit who rules the lake in which they live.

She falls in love with a human prince and begs the evil water witch Ježibaba to use her magic to turn her into a human.

Ježibaba agrees on the condition that Rusalka loses her voice.

He also warns her that if the prince rejects Rusalka’s love, she will be doomed to return to the lake and face eternal misery.

About to marry this strange voiceless creature, the Prince is lured away from her by a countess who is an old love of his, jealous of Rusalka and determined to ruin her.

The prince basically dies of a broken heart, Rusalka returns to the lake and is unhappy ever after.

I was very impressed by the new ROH production.

Dvořak’s music blends operatic grandeur with Slavic folk music in a gloriously effective style, made all the more compelling by a superb performance by the Royal Opera House orchestra, sensitively and meticulously conducted by Semyon Bychkov.

The cast was excellent, with great performances by Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian as Rusalka, Russian baritone Aleksei Isaev as her father Vodnik and British tenor David Butt Philip as The Prince, with British soprano Emma Bell and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly both deliciously wicked like the Duchess and Ježibaba.

Despite the excellence of the music and cast, however, the most impressive contribution to this production came from Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, whose joint direction and Ann Yee’s choreography brought the story to life.

I have often disapproved of directors who drag their personal social or political beliefs into operas, but Abrahami and Yee subtly introduced the current theme of man against nature in a very appropriate way.

The set design was impressive without being overbearing and the costumes were striking without being flashy.

Altogether an excellent production of an opera that deserves to be seen more often.

  • Tickets (from £40 to £200): roh.org.uk or 020 7304 4000 (various dates until March 7)

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