On Thursday we went down to Edinburgh for Rusalka. In the event we’ve not said, this is we venture, our favourite of all opera ever. For skilfully rendered story and devastatingly good music it’s unmatched.
When Scottish Opera announced Rusalka for this season we determined to go. We’ve not seen it live since the COC took it on 7 (?) years ago, and we wanted to. Nothing conveys the vulnerability, the messiness, the sheer effort of singing like a live performance. But outings like this run the risk of ending with us spending the third act nervously watching the clock and calculating the distance back to Waverly Station to catch the 23:08 back to Leuchars. We love our grey town by the sea, but it’s not exactly easy to reach if you can’t drive.
We’re glad we made the effort though. We never noticed the time, and we did catch the train, but this was more than that. Rusalka is, as it says on its title page, a lyrical fairytale at it’s heart, and this production had taken the idea and run with it. All the women, from Rusalka to the witch Jezibaba were given dresses that tapered and flared like fishtails. The men were all in woodsy greens and browns. It was lovely to look at, lovely to listen to, and best of all this was a production that brought interesting and new interpretations to its characters.
Jezibaba especially stood out in this respect. Every previous iteration of the opera we’ve seen has rendered her cartoonish, warts, rags, stoop and all. It wasn’t only that Scottish Opera gave us an elegant woman who acted as well as she sang. There was a depth we’ve never seen in the part before. Straight-shouldered and graceful, Jezibaba was still terrifying when call upon. There was also great tenderness in her music. This was a woman who looked at the abandoned Rusalka and saw in her something of herself and seeing it, offered her empowerment the best way she understood it. More than that though, we believed it of her, not only because the musical cues, the darkening of Rusalka’s leitmotif, it’s adoption of aspects of Jezibaba’s reinforced it, but because the performance sold the interpretation. Blood vengeance was part of her, certainly, but not the only part. And there was something far more chilling about the woman who could move from cradling Rusalka like a child to wielding a knife with menace than there was in that cartoonish witch we so often think of.
Vodnik the water gnome was memorable too, and we don’t say that lightly. Years of singing and we still find ourselves in alien territory when we hear basses. It’s not that we dislike them, it’s that it’s a different kind of listening. We’re comfortable with high notes, we sing them often, so we listen with understanding to the soprano, and gravitate towards those high lines because we can appreciate them. We can spot when a tempo’s unsympathetically slow and necessitating extra breaths, we know when a high note has landed, and while we know we could never do half so well, we can understand the hurdles to be got over and the nuances in the singing.
We can’t say that about the lower registers of the voice, which is why whenever we hear an especially good singer traverse those places -as happened the other evening – we can only listen with a certain amount of awe. We think of low notes and we think of falling (with a fair amount of control) down a well. It never sounds like that. This sounded like it rose up out of the floor, out of the space beneath the floor, possibly from somewhere dark and rich and warm deep in the earth itself. Think about what red velvet cake might sound like if it could sing. The really impressive thing though, is that a voice like that came out of a man submerged in the scenery. It turns out that if you literally make your water gnome, well, a water-gnome, complete with tail, free movement is sacrificed somewhat. It made it all the more effective when he did break free of the set. Power radiated off of him in waves, and we’ve never seen anything like that. It was awful in that old, archaic sense of the word, full of awe and wonderment.
It wouldn’t be Rusalka though without a mention of the Song to the Moon. We could rave about it forever –it’s our favourite aria if we have to choose –but we won’t. We can’t say anything meaningful that hasn’t been already. Suffice it to say it sounded like liquid gold, that those harps felt like coming home.
We’ll leave you with those harps. They say it best after all. And while this isn’t the performance we heard, it’s still a favourite.