Glinting from the reflecting pool of water occupying its stage, the ripples of light cascading through the Festival Theatre’s chandeliers couldn’t paint the theatre in a more opulent glow than with the staging of Garsington Opera’s Rusalka. This is a new production of Dvořák’s piece at Edinburgh International Festival which pairs the world of the under-water supernatural and the mortal together in what will undoubtedly be a familiar narrative for many, but with a far grimmer outcome.
Underpinned by conductor Douglas Boyd, the Philharmonic Orchestra take pride of place in this opera’s overture. Extended and holding back on the vocals, they allow the audience time to appreciate the extent and scale of Tom Piper’s staging – a colossal porthole concealing a body of water, framed by a green-tainted, cast iron promenade of sorts overlooks affairs.
From this pool, glimpsing the human realm, Rusalka looks to sacrifice everything surrounding her in pursuit of love with a human. Featuring familiar elements, Dvořák’s sensationalist opera flows through the romanticism of Hans Christian Anderson‘s The Little Mermaid, infusing a much darker, Czechian spin where crabs and flounders are replaced with goblins, nymphs, and less than happily-ever-afters.
Bathing Elin Pritchard (taking the lead role in lieu of Natalya Romaniw) in a crisp, contrasting light to the more mottled greens and copper surrounding her. A small aperture within enables Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to lift the opera’s most sensational song, Song to the Moon, to captivate audiences. Pritchard captures a hollowness within Rusalka, a missing fragment she so desperately feels the necessity to fill, only to cost her everything.
But this poor unfortunate soul doesn’t stand a chance with Ježibaba’s stern and malevolent ways. Christine Rice’s voice is a cutting force here, vastly capable of accentuating her spite in being banished. Fathoms below nymphs gallop and swing as their father Vodník (Musa Ngqungwana) attempts to balance his loathing for humanity with the safety of his daughter – a powerful, unruly and commanding vocal performance.
Making full use of Fleur Darkin’s movement direction and Lina Johansson’s circus choreography, the set dressings are adorned with ropes which make frequent practical appearances – offering an additional immersion into Rusalka’s pulsating moments as a dance-operatic, breaking up the lengthier runtime with a flow of movement to agitate the more sombre, still moments.
Perhaps the performance takes pacing a little too seriously, and the set-up may well serve to enhance the arching narrative, but it all results in a surprisingly light opera (the Festival’s only fully staged one this year) that possesses an untapped chasm of character, design and movement.