Doing Anything for Love: Rusalka from the Teatro Real, Madrid

Dvořák – Rusalka

Rusalka – Asmik Grigorian
The Prince – Eric Cutler
Vodník – Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev
Foreign Princess – Karita Mattila
Ježibaba – Katarina Dalayman
Wood Sprites – Julietta Aleksanyan, Rachel Kelly, Alyona Abramova
Gamekeeper – Manel Esteve
Kitchen Boy – Juliette Mars
Hunter – Sebastià Peris

Coro Titular del Teatro Real, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real / Ivor Bolton.
Stage director – Christof Loy.  Video director – Xavi Bové.

Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.  Wednesday, November 25th, 2020.  Streamed via

This new production of Rusalka by Christof Loy at the Teatro Real promised to be a highlight of the operatic season of the capital of the Spanish state.  Unlike so many other places currently, the Teatro Real was able to give the entire run in front of a live audience, and the work was preserved for posterity thanks to a collaboration between mezzo, and RTVE.  Loy’s staging was given added impact due to the fact that Eric Cutler, who had been due to give his debut in the role of the Prince in the cancelled Santa Fe production this summer, had injured his Achilles tendon days before the opening night of this staging.  A natural stage animal, Cutler worked with Loy and his castmates at the very last minute to revise the staging and sang the entire evening on crutches.

Indeed, what could have been misfortune actually gave Loy’s staging added poignancy.  For Loy, Asmik Grigorian’s Rusalka is an injured ballerina who, through her assistance from Ježibaba, becomes able to walk again and also negotiate the stage impressively en pointe, even singing the climax of her celebtrated ‘song to the moon’ while standing on the tips of her toes.  This idea that Rusalka transcended her injury, to find love with someone also injured, is one that I found immensely moving.  The set (Johannes Leiacker) appears to be a theatre, perhaps one in a palatial home, with Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev’s Vodník a paternal figure and Katarina Dalayman’s Ježibaba someone who appears to staff the ticket office.  In Acts 1 and 3, nature isn’t too far away with rocks invading the set, while Act 2 takes place in a pristine palatial space, home to a decadent polysexual orgy during the ball scene.

What Loy brings out so successfully through his singing actors is this clash of worlds – the innocence of Rusalka with the sophisticated world of the prince.   Within this, he creates a narrative of satisfying, indeed human, complexity.  The need of the Prince to escape his environment to feel love.  Rusalka’s need to be able to dance again and to love.  Vodník’s horror at the debauchery taking place in the palace.  There’s something so utterly compelling about this staging and the people within, the way each came with their own preconceptions of what the others were, and how in the end Rusalka and the Prince are able to express their love openly, if ultimately only for a moment.  The score abounds in dance and Loy’s staging is true to that element through its ballet setting, although I did leave with a slight sense that there was a mismatch between the score’s naturalist tinta and the somewhat aseptic setting we saw on stage.  Make no mistake though, this was a staging that captured the imagination and thrilled accordingly.

Naturally, it wouldn’t have had the impact it had, had it not been for some glorious musical performances.  Not least from Grigorian in the title role.  This is a role that sits so well for her bright, diamantine soprano, able to soar over the surging band with ease.  She’s a singing-actor who gives absolutely everything to her art, her dedication to learning to cross the stage en pointe was seriously impressive.  She sang her celebrated ‘song to the moon’ with captivating tenderness, shading the tone lovingly, making it feel just as achingly magical as it should be.  Later, she brought out Rusalka’s torment through her incredibly vivid facial acting, magnified through Xavi Bové’s video direction.  The voice also sounds so fresh and healthy, pealing out with ease on high.  Another major assumption from this thrilling singer.

Cutler’s prince was equally moving.  In Act 1, he poured out streams of lovingly golden tone in his duet with Rusalka.  Yet even here, he shaded his declarations of love in a way that expressed doubt, pulling back the tone in places.  This made the episode with the Foreign Princess in Act 2 even more believable and, in turn, made his final pouring out of love to Rusalka even more moving, as if finally appreciating what he had with Rusalka in a tender Liebestod.  His bright, clarion tenor brought much pleasure, especially as he was willing to exploit such a wide range of dynamics and sing with loving tenderness, experimenting with voix mixte in places, yet never losing the core of the sound.  His was a complex interpretation that fascinated.

Karita Mattila camped it up quite spectacularly as the Foreign Princess, clearly having the time of her life with the various gentlemen dancers she came into contact with, as well as some slapstick with the Prince’s crutches.  The voice is in good shape, with registers seemingly much more integrated than when I heard her live last month.  Her distinctive soprano also took flight in its customary lunar beauty.  There was a similarity in appearance between Mattila’s Foreign Princess and Dalayman’s Ježibaba, both coiffed with an identical blonde hairstyle. It did make me wonder whether Loy seems them both as two sides of the same coin – particularly, as Dalayman made Ježibaba a sassy, hip-shaking matriarch.   Having spent most of her career as a noted dramatic soprano, she has adapted extremely well to her new tessitura – her tart, grapefruit-toned mezzo sounds like a still substantial instrument.  Kuzmin-Karavaev sang Vodník in an agreeably resonant bass, although the top does sound rather disconnected and lacking in metal.  The remainder of the cast was at the level one would expect of this house and Andrés Máspero’s chorus vibrated generously from off-stage.

I found Ivor Bolton’s conducting took a while to settle.  It didn’t help that for the first act or so, the orchestra seemed recessed compared to the voices in the sound mix.  As the evening progressed, it felt that Bolton grew in authority.  The rhythmic impetus was undeniable and yet he was also able to pull back and lovingly phrase the music, just as it needed.  Tempi felt sensible and the orchestra gave us playing that was worthy of the reputation of the house.

This must have been an overwhelming evening in the theatre.  A group of master singing-actors, giving performances of commanding insight, in a staging that gave us a reflection on what it means to sacrifice for what one really loves – whether it be for ballet, for art, or for the love of another.  Naturally, watching on the small screen, without the benefit of being able to experience the glory of the unamplified human voice, will always feel like watching at one remove.  Yet, even despite that, this was a thrilling evening of opera and, given that it will be available to stream from until March next year, one I will be likely to return to.  And, as always, gratitude is due both to the Teatro Real and to the whole cast for having the courage to perform and give us opera at the very highest level in these troubled times.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.


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