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21 March, 2007

Unique Rusalka at the Sydney Opera House

Rusalka – Wed 21st March 2007, Sydney Opera House.

Wood-sprites – Taryn Fiebig, Domenica Matthews, Sarah Crane
Water Gnome – Bruce Martin
Rusalka (water nymph) – Cheryl Barker
Jezibaba (witch) – Anne-Marie Owens
Prince – Rosario La Spina
Kitchen boy – Sian Pendry
Gamekeeper – Barry Ryan
Foreign Princess – Elizabeth Whitehouse

cond. Richard Hickox
prod. Opera North – Olivier Fuchs
design. Niki Turner

Dear Colleagues,

A packed house was treated to a glorious, long night of beautiful, intelligent and stimulating opera. The season has had its problems with autumn viruses … and to top it off, Ms Whitehouse broke her arm and missed a performance – she was in a sling this time, largely undetectable under her magnificent spreading bright red taffeta gown

Nearly everything in the production came from the text. On literally dozens of occasions there was direct connect between what was happening on stage and the words of the libretto. “Rising mists”; “Goblin’s tangled hair”; “Bubbles rising in the water”; “feet learn to walk”. Incredibly, even when the mute Rusalka mimed, her actions and reactions seemed to come directly from Dvorak’s lush score.

The only disconnect was that the entire production was set within a huge ice block – and there is mention in the score of cool, even ‘icy’ ponds and forests inhabited by the sprites, goblins and nymphs. In fact we were presented with a series of out-sized utilitarian ice cubes, strategically positioned or suspended in relation to the all important small seal hole in the pack ice. Notably, Rusalka performed most of Act I while writhing, mermaid like, atop her 2 metre cube. Her ‘song to the moon’, with its instantly recognizable intervals, was a feast for the ears. At the same time, Miss Barker looked like a latter-day Marilyn Monroe (still without legs or feet at this point). Dvorak left no room for applause as the orchestral line is through written. This also suited the evening’s recording by a private record company. I wondered if there is really still a place for commercial recordings of this nature when the market is flooded with cheap videos and DVD’s showing the ‘whole picture’, some of which seem to be released within days of the event (such as the Olympic Opening Ceremony). It is a shame our operas are no longer televised.

Bruce Martin sat suspended above the ice-hole while the three water nymphs start the action with their rhythmic trio. Their Norn-like commentaries were clever while their movements were engaging and sexy.

I recall the gasping disappointment at the Met when the subtitles first revealed that Renee Fleming would be mute for the remainder of the opera. This left two love duets (on either side of the first intermission) which only contain one voice: the tenor … and each was brilliantly performed by Rosario La Spina who goes on from strength to strength. This time singing in Czech, he looked and sounded a fine eastern Prince. His tessitura, phrasing and high register were all impeccable. This was a rare treat and far superior to Oleg Kulko who sang this part at the Metropolitan in 2004.

Ms Whitehouse used her substantial voice and dramatic presence to divert the Prince’s attentions from poor mute Rusalka whose voice returned at the end of Act 2 when commiserating with her ‘father’, bass Bruce Martin. This part was played by Willard White in New York in two most memorable performances mid-season a couple of years ago (cum Fleming, Urbanova, Zajick).

The transformation scene was performed in hilarious style as our high-heeled sorceress became a part-time session surgeon, complete with rubber gloves, stainless bowl, scalpel and anaesthetic machinery.

Rather than a palace, we were brought into regal company with two intersecting red carpets and a parade of courtiers making no doubt about the setting, imposed on the existing frosty set . Rather than the woods, a few props and a plucked duck clearly indicated where we were. The designer and director deserve full credit for making an almost unbelievable concept “work”.

With excellent contributions from orchestra and chorus this was a special night at the opera indeed. I heard opening night as well – with so few performances, most will have to wait for a return season. Only two performances remain, Monday and Wednesday, this week marking the end of the ‘summer’ season.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..