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Composer: Antonín Dvořák

Libretto: Jaroslav Kvapil

Based on fairy tales by K.J. Erben and B. Němcová

First Produced: Prague, 1901

Present Company: Bavarian State Opera, 2010

Director: Martin Kušej

Sets: Martin Zehetgrube

Costumes: Heidi Hackl

Lighting: Reinhard Traub

Video Director: Thomas Grimm

Director of Photography: Werner Schwanninger

Bavarian State Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Conductor: Thomáš Hanus



Rusalka: Krístīne Opolaís

The Water Gobln: Günther Groissböck

The Prince: Klaus Florian Vogt

The Foreign Princess: Nadia Krasteva

Jezibaba: Janina Baechle

The Forester: Ulrich Reß

Kitchen Boy: Tara Erraught



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 34.68 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (20~32 Mbps)

Czech DTS-HD MA 5.0

Czech LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Korean & Chinese

Region: All

Opera runtime: 153 minutes

C Major/Kultur 2011



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A+

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: B+

Image: A-

Audio: A

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: A-



We don’t generally think of Dvorak, the man who gave us the “New World Symphony,” the Slavonic Dances and that most popular of cello concertos, as an opera composer, or for that matter a composer for the voice, though he wrote a not insignificant mass and a number of songs.  In fact, Dvorak is credited with ten operas, though only Rusalka (and to a lesser extent The Devil and Kate) has stayed the course.  While Rusalka may not be well known in the States, it gets a good deal of play in Europe. The same week that this darkly interpreted production was playing in Munich, another more traditional, very G-rated, upbeat take on the opera was entertaining the whole family at the Volksoper in Vienna.



Except for his twentieth century compatriot, Janacek, who wrote several music dramas still very much in the repertory, operas in the Czech language are uncommon.  For one thing, singers need to learn how to sing in that language – the time and labor involved is usually prohibitive, and Czech-born singers of the caliber required are not so common.  Of the six prominent singers in this production, four are native German speakers; one is Bulgarian; and one is Latvian.  All of them needed a coach to learn to sing convincingly and musically in Czech.




The notion that the same text and music can spawn such fundamentally different is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Martin Kušej’s tale of longing for love in all the wrong places.  It’s The Little Mermaid meets Lars von Trier.  When we first see the water nymph Rusalka (sung and acted by overnight sensation Krístīne Opolaís), she is in the water world below the world of humans.  Her sisters are preparing themselves for the arrival of their father, Vodnik, the Water Golbin (a commanding Günther Groissböck) a creature that can negotiate both worlds.  In Kušej’s depiction, Vodnik is a drunk who terrorizes his wife, the witch Jezibaba (Janina Baechle), and sexually abuses his children. All of them long for another life, but none so desperately as Rusalka, who fantasizes her prince and all that goes with him.



One day Rusalka escapes to the upper world and implores Jezibaba to give her a potion that will allow her to enter into the human world.  This she does, but Jezibaba warns Rusalka that she will be mute.  It’s a condition that at first entrances her prince (the clear-toned  tenor Klaus Florian Vogt) and then frustrates him.  Opolaís wears bright red, high heeled shoes (echoes of Dorothy?) in which she totters precariously for the next forty minutes.  Her frustration is enough to bring tears to our eyes, but Kušej isn’t satisfied until her inability to speak, to communicate at the human level, wrings us dry.


Dry is what Rusalka is not, or at least what she ought not be.  As she becomes increasingly disturbed by what she sees of the human world – sex, jealousy, prejudice, the fickleness of men and the killing and eating of animals (remember Lord Greystoke’s horrified reaction when he sees his fellow apes in a natural history museum!) – she longs to return to her watery world.  By contrast her abusive father doesn’t look so bad.  The question remains: Can she return and, if so, at what cost?




The question of interpretation leads directly into its realization on stage.  We are dealing here with two worlds: one inhabited by nymphs and goblins and the other by humans. Martin Zehetgrube designed a two story set whose lower level, the lake, lowers into the stage floor as the action transfers to the human world.  When Rusalka meets Jezibaba, for a time both levels are visible to the audience; but the world of the prince and the villagers in which Rusalka is made to feel an outcast has no ceiling.  In the one world she appears stifled; in the other she is overwhelmed.


More than any other character, Rusalka is more or less drenched in water.  In the bonus feature Krístīne Opolaís talks about how potentially hazardous to the voice this is, as you can imagine.  Just watching her walking about on stage in a soaking wet dress is, frankly, not a little concerning.  We have to believe she and the crew take every possible precaution to protect her health and her voice.  Apparently she survived the experience – and the role certainly did her reputation no harm.



As is emphasized on the Making-of bonus feature, all the singers are required to be accomplished actors. This is nowhere more important than for the title character who is not only put through the emotional wringer from one end of the opera to the other, she is mute on stage for fifty minutes.  Krístīne Opolaís is a unique presence. Long before she utters a sound we are aware that this is a most elemental woman.  Beautiful, alluring, wholesome, and assured.  We are almost surprised that this creature sings - and with an emotional range that is quite dazzling - or would be if it weren’t for her remarkable humanity.  Her lament at the beginning of Act 3 is heartbreaking: without her charms and the love of her prince, she longs for a watery grave.


By the sheer weight of her time and presence on stage, all other actors are made secondary, yet every one is brilliant.  Each embodies their character as if born to it - and keep in mind their performances are all sung in what for them is a foreign language.  I feel a little remiss in not giving each one of them their due, but I shall try to appease the gods with an honorable mention: Günther Groissböck’s Water Gobln.  Talk about transformation: With the help of very little make-up, his is a characterization so completely antithetical to the man.  His singing aside, which by the way nails Vodnik perfectly, his presence is frightening, repulsive and reassuring by turns.  You should check out the bonus feature to contrast the man and the role.



C Major’s video presentation is sharp and colorful, and perhaps tells us a little more than we want to know about the limits of the high-definition video sensor, as there are moments where it is incapable of handling the extreme wide contrast range presented by Reinhard Traub’s lighting scheme.  The most troubling instance of this occurs with Rusalka’s white dress in the third act, which is blown all to hell for quite some time.  While this is not likely the fault of the transfer, but I took a half-pint off on general principles. That issue aside there is really nothing to complain about.  Close-ups have a reach out and touch it quality.  Blacks are deep and very nearly noiseless.  The water is truly wet.

Thomas Grimm does like his close-ups (I recall his fine work on Lohengrin), and I can understand his wanting to linger on Miss Opolaís’ expressive and mesmerizing face - but he does so far too often and at the expense of what else is happening on stage in the second act.  Fine actress that she is, Opolaís has only just so much nuance to offer; moreover Rusalka is, for the most part, in a kind of suspended animation for much of that act, a prisoner of affect.  So cutting to her in close-up as much as he does, can feel a little exhausting.



Clearly conductor Thomáš Hanus is in command of his Bavarian State Opera Orchestra.  The orchestra breathes with every inflection of Dvorak’s score. The stage - both chorus and soloists - is recorded in a fairly realistic perspective that maintains perspective. The surround is robust, allowing the orchestra to expand powerfully as needed, the stereo is not nearly as full, but is dynamic and has a natural balance between stage and pit. And before I forget, I should commend the onstage Bavarian Opera Chorus, who sing marvelously, at times sending shivers down my spine.  There is a missed opportunity, however, in not assigning the third act offstage chorus of sisters to the surrounds.



Most significant and most unusual is the absence of an audience.  Blu-ray operas generally begin and end with the audience.  But here their presence is carefully edited out.  There is no applause anywhere, not even at the end of acts; nor are there curtain calls.  The opera merely fades into oblivion.  Obviously this effect goes a long way to further our image of a fantasy world of metaphor.  The menu offers no chapters, scene or act act markings, and even the subtitles are kept to smallest possible size consistent with readability.  It’s all quite remarkable.




There is no booklet in the Kultur release, so the 35-minute Making-of feature is a must-see, preferably before you settle down to the opera.  Not only does it address at length Martin Kušej’s conception of the piece, which he admits is probably not Dvorak’s view of the piece, but how the singers adapted to it and to singing in Czech.  We appreciate their candor in both respects.  We also hear from set designer Martin Zehetgrube who talks about the handling of the water - alas, nothing about how he kept the actors from freezing.  It might be of some interest that everyone speaks to the camera in German (subtitled, of course) except for our Latvian star, Krístīne Opolaís, who speaks in English, not perfectly, but with heartfelt expression.  And we treated to one thing Rusalka doesn’t have: a killer smile.



My criticisms of the orchestra sound (minor) and the video direction (less minor) aside, C Major’s Blu-ray of Rusalka is a very special release and should not be missed.  Caution: Martin Kušej’s way with the text is more grimm than fairy tale, and his handling of sexuality and child abuse is more explicit than young children should be exposed to.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 27, 2012

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