EIF: Rusalka

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Retiring EIF director Fergus Linehan has identified residencies as a key ingredient in reducing the carbon footprint of the industry, and the presence of Garsington Opera and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Edinburgh at the start of his last programme is part of that. The suggestion must be that the Buckinghamshire company could become a regular partner of the Festival in the way that Glyndebourne was 75 years ago.

This is a big thing for Garsington as well as Edinburgh, as making work for a big proscenium arch indoor stage is new to them, and it will be hoping that such a showcase may lead to further outings for this production as well as more new work travelling to Scotland. Edinburgh has seen many visually stunning opera productions from European companies (Turin’s Boheme five years ago springs instantly to mind), and the good news is that director Jack Furness and designer Tom Piper’s Rusalka can stand happily in such company.

Regular visits by Garsington might also mean the frequent return of Natalya Romaniw, as the company has nurtured the career of the Swansea soprano, and that would also be no bad thing. She was cheered to the rafters by the opening night audience – acclaim that was matched only by the reception for homecoming conductor Douglas Boyd.

Romaniw is absolutely at the peak of her powers, both vocally and as an actor. Furness and Piper have incorporated aerial artists into the watery world of the spirit and her cohorts, and there is a fair amount of crossover in the onstage action, for Romaniw on her own as well as with the three nymphs, Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards. Often ankle-deep in water, the whole cast seem to revel in the elemental aspects of the staging.

That physicality not only chimed nicely with the Festival’s opening event, MACRO at Murrayfield, and the acrobatics of Australia’s Gravity & Other Myths there, but is part of a trend in contemporary opera production also to be seen in Phelim McDermott’s staging of Glass’s Akhnaten with Gandini Juggling. The aerialists here serve a similar purpose in keeping the stage full of action during the crucial instrumental passages of Dvorak’s score.

Boyd and the Philharmonia are as pivotal to the story-telling as that music unfolds, with its vocabulary of themes tied to the characters. Those three nymphs immediately suggest the Ring’s Rhinemaidens, and the Wagnerian parallels were also obvious in Christine Rice’s characterful Jezibaba and Musa Ngqungwana’s ambiguous, ambivalent Vodnik.

On the human side of the story, Gerald Schneider brings a wealth of experience in the role to the Prince and Sky Ingram, who has played the title role, is a stylish, predatory Foreign Princess. However, for all the individual brilliance – amongst the orchestral soloists in the pit as well as onstage – this Rusalka is ultimately a very fine ensemble creation. The darkest of adult fairytales, as far from Disney’s Little Mermaid as you might imagine, it is full of contemporary resonances 120 years on from its premiere – and they leap quite startlingly from the surtitle text in this Czech language production.

Keith Bruce

Further performances on Monday and Tuesday. eif.co.uk

Picture of Rusalka’s Three Nymphs by Andrew Perry