, January 2009
Over the years of the so-called ‘powerhouse’ regime at the English National Opera, with Mark Elder as music director and David Pountney as stage director, many powerful, imaginative productions were created, of which this version of Rusalka, recorded here in 1986, was among the very finest. The concept was to set this fairy-tale piece in an Edwardian nursery full of toys, with the Watergnome as Rusalka’s grandfather in a wheelchair, and Rusalka herself first seen on a swing with her feet bound together, very much an Alice in Wonderland figure. The Witch is a wicked aunt, dressed in a sinister black as she pronounces her curses on Rusalka, as when, with Rusalka opting for human form, she snarls, ‘You’ll be dumb for ever more!’ On video, as in the theatre, the concept works surprisingly well, with suggestions that it is all just a dream. Motivations, characterization and storyline are, if anything, clarified, with the fantasy of the piece intensified. In the title-role Eilene Hannan sings powerfully with her clear, bright soprano, John Treleaven as the Prince sings with unstrained clarity, even if he does not cut a very romantic figure, and Rodney Macann as the Grandfather/Watergnome tends to steal the show, very characterful with his dark, incisive bass. Ann Howard is wonderfully menacing as the Aunt/Witch with her firm mezzo, while the fluttering vibrato of Phyllis Cannan as the Foreign Princess even adds to her exotic image. Unlike most of the others in Act II, who are dressed white, she stands out in her fashionable crimson gown. The three Watersprites, Rusalka’s sisters, are all wonderfully lively, and incidental characters are all very well taken. Mark Elder, an inspired conductor, draws warm, incisive playing from the orchestra, adding to the dramatic impact. A unique entertainment, well worth trying.