When the 2022 EIF programme was announced I confess to a lukewarm reaction to Rusalka as the sole staged opera simply because it's never been one of my favourite works and I've seen it a couple of times and not been wowed. I booked for this run of performances more for completionist reasons. As it turned out this is a show that is well worth seeing and makes a very strong case for the merits of the piece.
Before we go on to any other aspects of the evening Elin Pritchard, stepping in to the title role for the indisposed Natalya Romaniw must be singled out for special praise. Pritchard gave a compelling singing-acting performance. It obviously must have helped that she covered the role during the Garsington run, but had an announcement not been made I doubt anyone would have realised she was stepping in. Both as an individual and in her interactions with the rest of the ensemble, aided by Jack Furness's thoughtful direction of people, she really brought the character and the story to effective, moving life. The moment in the third act when she kisses the Prince & Dvorak's score climaxes was especially powerful. She also has a voice of distinctive character with great power at the top of the range, and is clearly thinking about the text she is communicating - the force of some of the repeated single words in the lower register particularly struck home.
As already noted Jack Furness's production, working in harmony with Tom Piper's designs, is beguiling. The rising and falling central green disc with the pool beneath and the human world above is a clever choice - and though it rises and falls quite often it never feels excessive. The single circular hole provides a particularly well designed mechanism for displaying Rusalka's movement between worlds without overdoing it. The pool effect works specially well the darker Malcolm Rippeth's lighting is. Hats off are due to the ensemble who manage to appear and disappear beneath the disc as if by magic - quite how they get in and out at the back (or could it be underneath?) began to fascinate me. Furness and choreographer/movement director Fleur Darkin also conjure a powerfully forbidding human world in Act 2. There's a dark, troubling edge to the moment when the Prince might make love to Rusalka were they not interrupted, and the decision to set the later scenes in the possible marital bedroom powerfully captures the potential for individual isolation in that, in theory, uniting space. Just occasionally I thought the symbolism was overdone - particularly the Prince cutting open the dead deer and offering the bleeding heart to the Foreign Princess - but that may be a matter of individual taste.
Furness also adds a team of six aerialists to the mix - this adds colour and beauty to the nymphs choral scenes, which also feature fine vocal and acting contributions from the trio of principal nymphs (Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe, Stephanie Wake-Edwards). The acrobatics are most extended in the Third Act choral scene but while this scene is beautiful to look at and listen to it can't quite disguise the fact that Dvorak's dramatic structuring here is flawed - on this viewing that chorus seems to me an unnecessary interruption at the point when the narrative wants to drive forward to the climactic encounter between the Prince and Rusalka.
The rest of the principal roles are all well and in many cases very strongly taken. I would particularly single out Gerard Schneider's Prince who manages to move in Act 3 despite his caddish behaviour in Act 2, Christine Rice's finely characterised & mysterious Jezibaba (I speculated what miserable encounter with the human world fuels her hatred), and Musa Ngqungwana's powerful Vodnik. The Garsington Chorus are in fine voice and again giving dramatically effective performances - there's some particularly touching, simple, movement for the women with the joining of hands and turning of backs when Rusalka is cast out.
In the pit the Philharmonia Orchestra continued the superb work they've shown throughout their residency this week (which I've realised is a real exercise in stamina - I just hope they'll still have energy for the Runnicles Fidelio on Wednesday evening). The playing has beauty, drama and character, the whole shaped with great effectiveness and drive by Douglas Boyd on the podium.
Altogether this is a really strong evening at the opera and thoroughly justifies its place in the programme. One performance remains tonight - do catch it if you haven't already done so.