New Video Of ‘Rusalka’ Is Appealing Evidence Of Its Rising Popularity

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Asmik Grigorian, center, motivates Rusalka’s every line specifically with gesture and stance, the way a fine dramatic actress would. (Production photos by Camilla Greenwell)

Dvořák: Rusalka. Asmik Grigorian (soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor), Aleksei Isaev (baritone), Emma Bell (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami (stage directors), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus, Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Opera Arte OABD7322D.

DIGITAL REVIEW — A mere 40 years ago, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka was, outside of the Czech lands, an operatic rarity: one of those works of which vocal collectors knew a single aria (the heroine’s lyrical “Song to the Moon”) in the West from old versions by Dorothy Maynor, Joan Hammond, or Zinka Milanov. Given the opera’s current popularity, it’s astonishing to realize that the professional American stage premiere (at San Diego Opera) wasn’t until 1975, and how late it came to many major venues: the Vienna State Opera in 1987, the Metropolitan Opera in 1993, the Paris Opéra in 2001 (a century after its Prague premiere), and Covent Garden and Lyric Opera of Chicago not until 2012 and 2014, respectively. Milan’s La Scala heard it only in 2023.

However, due to the work’s dramatic power and strikingly beautiful orchestral and vocal writing — not equaled, alas, in any of the composer’s other 10 operas, though 1882’s grand opera Dimitrij merits hearing — it has quickly attracted leading conductors, directors, and singers.

There are now several plausible video versions from which to choose. Opus Arte’s new version, filmed at London’s Royal Opera House in 2023, has considerable virtues, though fidelity to Czech phonetics is not among them. The production, by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, is far more straightforward than Melly Still’s overbusy Glyndebourne filming, the brilliant psycho-sexual but obsessively bloody Martin Kušej version from Munich (starring a riveting Kristine Opolais in her brief prime), or Robert Carsen’s overly arty Paris Opéra treatment.

Some innovative ideas (having the transformed mermaid bear a visible scar marking her “difference”) rub up against lazy clichés (the Prince’s louche courtiers all smoke, so we know they are Bad People.)

Two things to know about the opera’s title. Whatever you hear on NPR or elsewhere, it is — like everything in Czech — pronounced with stress on the first syllable. Russophone musical emigrants to this country popularized the Russian pronunciation stressing the second syllable, familiar from Alexander Pushkin’s uncompleted “folk tragedy” and the 1855 Alexander Dargomyzhsky opera on which it is based. (That tuneful, differently plotted work one can hear but rarely even in Russian theaters.)

Secondly, “Rusalka” is not the first name of the principal character, though she is addressed and spoken about using the word. She — like everyone else in this fairy-tale opera — is called by a generic name: “the Mermaid,” “the Prince,” “the Foreign Princess,” “the Ježibaba” (a term related to the Russian witches called “Baba Yaga”), “the Water Nymph,” and so on. Though their fates may move us (and surely Rusalka has its “double Liebestod,” one of the most devastating final scenes in all of opera), the characters are archetypes. Several other of the so-called “fairy-tale operas” so popular 1890-1925 share this tendency, including Humperdinck’s Königskinder (beyond question the most important German-language work to receive its world premiere at the Met, and due locally for at least a concert revival), Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (in which only one onstage character, Barak, has a name) and Vixen Sharp-Ears, the original and proper title of Janáček’s opera widely and erroneously known as The Cunning Little Vixen.

Semyon Bychkov’s unrushed but attentive, magisterial conducting is this DVD’s most enduring contribution, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s rich string tone is a constant pleasure. To her credit, Asmik Grigorian motivates Rusalka’s every line specifically with gesture and stance, the way a fine dramatic actress would. She moves beautifully and mimes the often silent character’s discoveries and anxieties with affecting skill. (In some ways, her main filmed competition as a singing actress is herself, in Christof Loy’s very balletic and very smart DVD from Madrid’s Teatro Real.) Her timbre at Covent Garden is emotionally compelling but — as other videos have suggested and her recent Met Butterfly confirmed — at its best at less-than-full volume.

The idea that such a soprano voice — however gifted its possessor is as an interpreter — should be put through the rigors of Isolde and Norma this coming year seems dangerously wrong-headed, but that is the state of our operatic landscape. So far, at least, Grigorian puts over the familiar aria and the sad third-act lament with considerable tonal beauty. However, the anguished second act outpouring of frustration and the final scene’s testing phrases show — by the admittedly Olympian standards of Gabriela Beňačková or the young Renée Fleming — distinct edginess.

Rusalka (Asmik Grigorian) meets with the Prince (David Butt Philip) in the Covent Garden production of ‘Rusalka.’

David Butt Philip (Prince) has gained in stage assurance since his Met debut as Mussorgsky’s Dmitri and also accessed more dynamic nuance. If less inherently beautiful a tenor than that of Sergei Larin or Piotr Beczała on Fleming’s Paris and Met DVDs, respectively, or Evan Leroy Johnson at Glyndebourne, his voice serves Slavic music well and does not tire in the part’s considerable demands. Sarah Connolly remains an icon for the British musical press, and her Ježibaba retains the incisive, characterful approach this fine artist has brought to a wide repertoire. Though in steadier, sappier voice than the last times I heard her live — Gertrude in Brett Dean’s Hamlet at the Met and Die tote Stadt’s Brigitta at the English National Opera — Connolly’s sound gets pretty angular under pressure. Ever the professional, she knows exactly what she can ask of her weathered instrument at this point. Her scene of working the transformation from mermaid to human is cluttered — as is the staging in general — by too many writhing, attention-grabbing punkish extras.

The surtitles find Rusalka addressing the Water Sprite as “Daddy,” which is not implicit in the original. Russia’s Aleksei Isaev has fine resonance and an aptly big presence but is definitely more baritone than bass. The program calls the Foreign Princess “the Duchess” — as if foreignness is somehow not politically correct to mention; yet this dangerous, disruptive figure’s alterity to both her silent rival and to the Prince’s court is a fundamental plot point. Soprano Emma Bell, who portrays the Foreign Princess, started her career in Handel and Mozart, tackled and filmed Barber’s Vanessa, and now appears in Wagnerian parts. Vocal beauty per se has never been, in my hearing, part of her arsenal: it’s an antiseptic timbre. A fine performer, she manages the part’s cruelly taxing tessitura well.

Annemarie Woods dresses the three singing Wood Spirits (a legacy of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens also a common feature of operas of that time) and their dancing colleagues in leafy outfits evoking the Jolly Green Giant. The three young vocalists (Vuvu Mpofu, Gabrielė Kupšytė, Anne Marie Stanley) handle their music, whether sprightly or mournful, with accuracy and fine tone. Vocally, sparky mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu makes something positive of the Kitchen Boy’s every appearance, though her scenes with Ross Ramgobin’s rather blunt-voiced Gamekeeper are no better directed here than in any of the videos l’ve seen. There’s much to enjoy in this Rusalka, but the engaged listener of this great score should try some of the competition as well.