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The Octopus Bride

Teatro alla Scala
06/06/2023 -  & June 9, 13, 16, 19, 22*, 2023
Antonín Dvorák: Rusalka, opus 114, B. 203
Olga Bezsmertna (Rusalka), Dmity Korchak (The Prince), Elena Guseva (The Foreign Princess), Jongmin Park (Vodník), Okka von der Damerau (Jezibaba), Jiri Rajnis (Gamekeeper), Svetlina Stoyanova (Kitchen Boy), Hila Fahima (First Nymph), Juliana Grigoryan (Second Nymph), Valentina Pluzhnikova (Third Nymph), Ilya Silchukou (The Hunter)
Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Alberto Malazzi (chorus master), Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Tomás Hanus (conductor)
Emma Dante (stage director), Carmine Maringola (sets), Vanessa Sannino (costumes), Cristian Zucaro (lighting), Sandro Maria Campagna (choreography)

O. Bezsmertna, J. Park (© Brescia/Amisano -Teatro alla Scala)

Premiered in Prague in 1901, its arrival to the world’s major cities took a long while. It premiered in London in 1950, at Venice’s La Fenice in 1958 and in San Diego in 1975. It premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as late as 1993. In the 80s, Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” had become popular thanks to its use in film and in recitals. This led to opera companies producing Dvorák’s most popular opera. Also, the increased popularity of Janácek’s works has increased the general interest in Czech operatic repertoire.

It is astonishing that Dvorák’s Rusalka had never been performed at La Scala prior to this production. Thankfully, since Dominique Meyer took the reins at La Scala in 2020, he’s introduced a significant number of operas never before performed in Milan, including this one.

Dvorák’s most famous opera is indeed a masterpiece. The music is rich, unquestionably influenced by Wagner, replete with leitmotifs for the principal characters. It’s also a nationalist work, with Dvorák generously weaving in more than a few irresistible Czech folk melodies. The composer’s fellow countryman, conductor Tomás Hanus, has conducted Rusalka and several Czech and Russian operas in cities including Prague, Brno, Munich, Paris, Geneva, Madrid and Dresden. He highlighted the Wagnerian side of Dvorák’s music with brio, and the folk tunes were brisk and energetic. He’s also a singers’ conductor, paying particular attention to their needs.

The cast of this production is near perfect. Ukrainian soprano Olga Bezsmertna was an ideal Rusalka. Her fresh lyric soprano had the right timbre to convey Rusalka’s innocence and fragility. Her “Song to the Moon” was one of the most beautiful and touching I have ever heard. However, she lacked stage presence, evident in the misguided staging, which diminished her potential to succeed.

The idea of endowing the siren Rusalka with tentacles rather than a mermaid’s tail was original, but not innovative. It was frankly revolting. Perhaps stage director Emma Dante’s intent was to accentuate Rusalka’s alienation and her outsider status. However, for the public, making the siren–an iconic image since antiquity–into a creature resembling an octopus or jellyfish is simply a turn‑off. If anything, it evokes an extraterrestrial creature from the annals of sci‑fi that take human form, a menacing prospect. This image renders one subconsciously aloof and doesn’t help one identity with Rusalka. Having her sing her marvelous “Song to the Moon” as a helpless creature confined to the floor (for tentacles prevent any other position), looking like spilled pudding, diminishes the power of the opera’s most popular aria. Likewise, Rusalka making her entrance in a wheelchair like a wealthy dowager may be fitting for Sunset Boulevard, but it’s unsuitable for this romantic heroine.

Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak, a bel canto singer, who excels in Rossini and Donizetti as well as in the French repertoire, was an excellent Prince. Dashing and handsome, he moved gracefully on stage, his bright lyric tenor had squillo and his high notes were flawless. He’s also a good actor, able to convey passion–not always easy in a role that calls for him to have a mute lover. His solo arias were charming as well as moving, and his duet with the Foreign Princess, exuberant. The final duet with the damned Rusalka transformed into a Willi (a woman who dies of a broken heart and comes back to haunt the culprit, as in Puccini’s Le Villi or Adam’s ballet Giselle) was heartbreaking. Korchak is remarkable as he was able to convey these different emotions in a mostly two‑dimensional fairy‑tale role.

Russian soprano Elena Guseva was an imperious Foreign Princess. Her powerful voice and haughty demeanor contrasted with Rusalka’s lighter voice. She overplayed the role to the extent that it wasn’t credible that a Prince, charmed by the tender siren, would fall for such a virago. At the beginning, she sang too loudly, producing an unpleasant effect, but this was quickly corrected. It’s interesting that she sported an ugly red dress similar to that of the witch Jezibaba.

South Korean bass Jongmin Park was an imposing Vodník. His deep dark voice conveyed both authority and tenderness. His lobster claws were less horrific than his daughter’s tentacles. It’s weird that males of this species have claws, but not females, yet females have tentacles, but not males.

German mezzo Okka von der Damerau’s Jezibaba was a larger than life witch, yet she didn’t overdo it. She was firm (and yes evil; after all, she’s a witch) but also maternal with Rusalka. Her deep scary laugh added gusto to the role. The witch’s den as well as Rusalka’s pond were near a beautiful abandoned, partially submerged Gothic church with high arches and a prominent rosette at its center. This was a gorgeous design, appropriate for the setting of a fairy tale.

Czech baritone Jiri Rajnis was the Gamekeeper, and Bulgarian mezzo Svetlina Stoyanova his nephew, the Palace’s Kitchen Boy. Their non‑essential roles were mostly a device for comic relief. Both were excellent actors and indeed quite funny. Their scene at the beginning of Act II, where they lament the Prince’s attachment to a mute creature he discovered in the forest was effective, thanks to their acting and Carmine Maringola’s sets. A dark thick forest where the trees morph into menacing beasts was an effective way to transport the audience into a fantastical universe.

The three nymphs were luxuriously cast: Israeli soprano Hila Fahima, Armenian soprano Juliana Grigoryan and Ukrainian mezzo Valentina Pluzhnikova. The gorgeous Grigoryan is the most recent winner of the Operalia Competition and she’s endowed with an exceptionally beautiful lyric soprano. I have no doubt that within a few years she will be one of the most in demand sopranos. The three singers’ voices blended well. Their Act III trio was a moment of grace, hampered only by the irritating ballet of nymphs or witch’s helpers–dressed like an American college swimming team–throwing water lilies into the nymphs’ pool. I doubt there was any symbolism behind the vacuous jests or the useless swim team. Doubtless, it was a quest for a memorable image. Indeed this seems to be a trademark of Emma Dante’s staging.

Act II was the most striking visually. Instead of the usual lavish setting at the Prince’s Palace, we are thrown into a fairy‑tale setting evocative of German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann’s imaginary world (a precursor of science fiction). The guests are more automatons than human noblemen, evocative of Delibes’ Coppélia or Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Olympia’s Act). The precise, mechanized movements of the guests contrasted with Rusalka’s gauche attempts at dancing and made her feel left out. When the Prince leaves Rusalka to accompany the Foreign Princess, the automatons sneer at the helpless Rusalka with harsh gestures in unison, not unlike aliens in a horror film.

The octopus/jellyfish “innovation” did produce an image worthy of a horror movie: the guests feasting on octopus tentacles. This pushed poor Rusalka’s distress to the limit. It’s an effective image but it felt forced. Likewise, the dance of the automaton couples took on an erotic twist that can only signify fornication. It took place once the Prince and the Foreign Princess were behind closed doors, to indicate the Prince’s infidelity was sentimental as well as carnal. It was both vulgar and unnecessary. The audience is not necessarily that dim.

In contrast, the clin d’œil to Hamlet’s Ophelia by positioning of Rusalka’s dead body identically to John Everett Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia was brilliant. This powerful image was meant to be engraved into the audience’s memory long after leaving the theatre. This staging fit with the story and didn’t diminish the characters.

A less felicitous visual effect was a huge hook suspended from the ceiling in the witch’s den which Rusalka holds on to after having lost her tentacles, and again when she is retrieved by her father Vodník at the Prince’s Palace.

Much could have been done with the staging had the stage, set and costume directors researched the rich history of Slavic folklore rather than sci‑fi imagery. Sadly, nothing in the sets referred to a sense of place regarding the fairy‑tale concept. After all, this is the Slavic version of Rusalka and not Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

Given the exceptional cast, this could have been one of the best productions of Rusalka ever. A film and stage director as well as actress, Emma Dante’s staging was full of remarkable images, from gorgeously evocative to revoltingly unpleasant. Had she delved further into the “horror” aspect, as she did with the automatons, this would have been a powerful production indeed. As it was, it finished as a collection of striking images that didn’t advance the opera’s plot. Nonetheless, the public, seeing this great opera for the first time, were enchanted and accordingly generous with their applause.

Ossama el Naggar



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