Rusalka by Antonin Dvorák. Royal Opera House WC2. To 7 March. 3*** Clare Colvin.

Dvorák’s fairy tale of a water spirit in love with a prince who swims in her woodland pool begins classically enough in Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee’s collaborative staging. In the central part of the dimmed out stage Rusalka floats mid-way, while the white-clad prince swooshes around her. The message the directors intend to convey has to do with the trashing of nature by humans’ carelessness. Rusalka as the spirit of nature is generally traduced. Deprived of her voice she is misunderstood, unable to adapt to the new world of humans or to return to her world of water, sisters, and father Vodnik (Aleksei Isaev). By the third act it is almost a case of extinction revolution, as destructed artefacts pile up and the bright stream despoiled.

One point that comes through specifically is that the stage of the Royal Opera House isn’t the ideal venue for Rusalka. Masking the stage to reduce the size of the image isn’t the answer, and I’ve noticed the most successful productions of Rusalka I’ve seen in the past have been on smaller stages – Wexford (pre-new theatre), Glyndebourne, and the Grange.

It’s best to concentrate on who or what is especially good – here Czech conductor Semyon Bychkov, Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, who is imbued with the Czech spirit of the work. Also, worth seeing while you can the Lithuanian Soprano Asmik Grigorian, whose shining voice captures the plangent tones of Rusalka’s lost soul. Tenor David Butt Philip possesses the steel ringing tones ideal for the Prince’s tessitura and there are fine performances by Emma Bell as the Duchess, (usually known as the Foreign Princess), and Sarah Connolly as Jezibaba, though I don’t know why someone has described the witch Jezibaba in the cast list as “a wise, eternal spirit” when she is one very mean old woman for whom Dvorák wrote some of his most blood-chilling music.

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov

Created by Natalie Abramhami and Ann Yee

Directors: Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami

Set designer: Chloe Lamford

Costume designer: AnneMarie Woods

Lighting designer: Paul Constable

Choreographer: Ann Yee

Chorus Director: William Spaulding

Production photos: Camilla Greenwell

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