Douglas Boyd makes a rare return to his native Scotland conducting Garsington Opera’s Rusalka at the Edinburgh International Festival. He talks to KEN WALTON
Since turning exclusively to conducting 16 years ago, the former oboist, Glasgow-born Douglas Boyd, has forged a solid reputation among fellow musicians as an out-and-out enthusiast. They warm to his lack of airs and graces, no doubt informed by his first-hand understanding of how orchestral players respond and operate. His own playing career took the now 63-year-old from principal oboe and founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to recitalist in such auspicious venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
When he eventually laid down the double reed in favour of a single baton, he had already successfully tested the water as music director of Manchester Camerata. He has since held leading conducting positions with the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Paris Chamber Orchestra, and in the US the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
But it’s in his capacity as artistic director of Garsington Opera, a post he has held for the last ten years, that Boyd will star in the opening few days of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. On Saturday, the Buckingham-based company brings its recent new production of Dvorak’s fairy-tale opera Rusalka to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, where it plays – with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and circus artists adding to the spectacle – for three performances.
Boyd is delighted to be returning to Scotland. “It means a lot to be back,” he says. “I hardly ever perform there, but have been recently, working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra during the pandemic and more recently doing an utterly inspiring project with junior students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.”
Already, this new Rusalka has attracted rosy comment. Reviewers of last month’s Garsington opening were intrigued by the action-packed staging directed by Jack Furness – who next week will escape Edinburgh to launch his new outdoor production of Bernstein’s Candide in Glasgow for Scottish Opera – and who were especially won over by Boyd’s luxurious realisation of one of Dvorak’s most impressive operatic scores.
“I think it’s one of the great fin de siècle masterpieces,” claims the conductor. “I feel I’m conducting the best music that’s ever been written. We tend to focus on one single aria, the Song to the Moon, but in the broader sense it’s the way Dvorak paints this fantastic text, not only in the vocal line, but throughout the orchestral score. It’s all very Wagnerian, he adds, “where every emotion and symbol is painted in sound.”
While it’s a fairy tale, it’s very much the adult variety, he argues. “You have to remember that the concept of fairly tales nowadays has been so Disneyfied and made into a children’s genre, whereas if you go back to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, it’s actually about our deepest fears as people, which starts in childhood and continues through adulthood. Grimms’ tales can be really horrific and scary; there’s an element of that in Rusalka as well.”
Indeed so. Dvorak’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil fashioned Rusalka on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Rusalka, a water nymph, wishes to become a human in order to capture the love of a Prince. The witch, Jezibaba, obliges, but with conditions: Rusalka must remain mute and the Prince must remain true to her. A Foreign Princess plots against them, the Prince rejects Rusalka, then repents. But the curse holds and a desperate kiss leads to the Prince’s death. Rusalka disappears into the watery depths.
It’s possible, says Boyd, to sense that foreboding in the orchestral score well before tragedy reveals its hand on stage. “As in Wagner, there are leitmotifs for each character, like the Rusalka theme at the beginning which is so incredibly beautiful, but when it comes back at the very end of Act 3, it does so as a funeral march. The truth is it’s been a funeral march the whole time, but it takes you until then to finally make that realisation.”
The story in this production is expressed in the original Czech, which Boyd and Furness both see as essential in reflecting the perfect symbiosis of Kvapil’s text and Dvorak’s music. “As long as you’ve got the supertitles in front of you, you get the best of both words. With a good translation you’re not excluding the audience, you’re embracing them, bringing them in. However, the stresses of the Czech language are so intrinsic to Dvorak’s music. The danger sometimes of singing it in English is it can get quite eggy, like trying to fit a square into a circle.”
But there’s always plenty to feast the eyes on in a production that aims to highlight the opera’s to-ing and fro-ing between the world of nymphs and the human world. “We’ve got aerialists [drilled by circus choreographer Lina Johansson] and pretty spectacular things going on on stage which is actually true to this halfway house,” says Boyd. Their presence has also enabled the production to fill Dvorak’s extended orchestral passages with additional representational movement.
For Boyd, the experience has cemented his view that Dvorak’s legacy as as opera composer has been unjustly underappreciated. “I think we tend to fixate on his instrumental output, on the last couple of symphonies, the chamber music, the Cello Concerto,” he argues. “But I think Rusalka is the product of a composer absolutely at the peak of his powers.”
Garsington Opera’s Rusalka is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. 6, 8 & 9 August. http://www.eif.co.uk/events/rusalka