If you have been reading the papers you might be forgiven for imagining that something provocative and exciting is going on down at the Royal Opera House. It seems the production was offensive enough to some to provoke opening night boos, and sufficiently engaging to others to provoke one fellow critic to denounce the booers as philistines (boulezian). As far as I could see there is nothing here to get particularly excited about.
Part of the problem is unquestionably the opera's story. Now I must confess that owing to a rather exhausting week at work I fell asleep during part of Act One but aspects of the story do seem a bit obscure. It concerns a water nymph, Rusalka, who wants to experience human love. A witch, Jezibaba (who in this production resembles a fairly decrepid elderly Eastern European bag lady with a cat which undergoes remarkable transformations in size) agrees but says she must sacrifice her voice. According to the synopsis if she then does not attain love she will be cursed by the water powers. Naturally enough, having initially ensnared the Prince, he promptly loses interest. Rusalka's voice is apparently restored by conversing with the water goblin, Vodnik whose motivations in the piece seemed confused. In Act Three it appears the prince is also cursed by having abandoned her, Rusalka having killed herself in despair appears to him, and kills him with a kiss before commending his soul to God. Among other problems quite why it is speaking to the water goblin that establishes she has not attained love, and why God is suddenly introduced into the equation at the end were particularly notable.
The production team faced with this relocate the action from woods, pools and fairy tale castles to a brothel. Beforehand I had expected, given reactions, to feel that this was violently at odds with the text. This was not how it struck me. Some of it seems to work fairly well – the idea of the other water nymphs as rather bored prostitutes, Jezibaba as the forbidding Madam. The production also benefits from the fact that the directors are capable of creating the right tensions between the characters at certain points – most successfully when relations are breaking down between the Prince and Rusalka in Act Two. However there are incongruities, Rusalka appears in mermaid costume at the beginning, and the water goblin's costume and appearance doesn't ever quite seem to fit with the brothel setting in which the nymphs are placed. In Act Three there are outbreaks of performers being given silly things to do by the director, the nymphs/prostitutes ransacking Jezibaba's handbag, Jezibaba messing around with a lot of high heeled shoes while Rusalka is lamenting her fate but these are far less serious than in many productions. The biggest problem to me is that the sordid setting does conflict with the unearthly beauty that the text implies Rusalka possesses for the Prince, and overall there is a sacrifice of fairy tale magic which might possibly have strengthened one's emotional engagement with the characters.
The performers all do their best with what they are given and the quality of singing and playing is very fine. Both Camilla Nylund (Rusalka) and Bryan Hymel (Prince) have excellent stage and vocal presence. Hymel indeed has one of those ringing tenors that is exciting to listen to – a richness of tone denied to Luis Chapa in the Opera North Norma (though the demands of the parts are obviously very different). Agnes Zwierko's Jezibaba was wonderfully dark and menacing, and commanded the stage in her Act Three scene. Alan Held as Vodnik was less successfully directed and seemed to spend a lot of time emerging from trapdoors or writhing around on the stage, but he also had a fine, penetrating sound. Petra Lang's Foreign Princess had less vocal richness than I remembered but still pierces through the ensembles as required. The remaining parts were similarly well taken. Yannick Nezet-Seguin making his Royal Opera House debut drew typically fine playing from the ROH Orchestra, making the best case possible for Dvorak's score.
And this sadly is the other big problem. Musically this just isn't a very interesting work. It would be too extreme to say that there is one good tune – the Song of the Moon – and it happens in the First Act, but one of my companions put his finger on it when he suggested that while there is some beautiful orchestration and some lovely tunes taken as a whole it does not sustain one's interest through three hours. Act Three dragged especially badly. The water nymphs trio repeats the same verse three times (it's not a good enough tune and it seemed to go on forever), and Dvorak has a real problem with the ending (not helped by a laughable corpse disposal moment).
In sum then, I can see no reason to get exited beyond the musical performance, and the quality of that is undermined by the second rank nature of much of the material. One performance remains, I would not feel that you need to rush to catch it.