Classical Music

The week in classical: Rusalka; The Rhinegold | Opera

Humans consist mostly of water. Dvořák’s nymph, Rusalka, who gives her name to the Czech composer’s ninth and finest opera, is all water. To the man who swims in the forest lake where she resides, she is merely another aqueous ripple. Her only way to win him is to become human. In the pretty trappings of a Slavic fairy story, Rusalka (1901) is a shattering tale of the danger of trying to be other than we are. To an audience today it is also a fable about tending the planet we live in. Without hammering the issues, all these elements united in the Royal Opera’s elegant, at times minimal, new staging, conducted by Semyon Bychkov and co-directed, in their main-stage debuts, by Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami.

From the outset, orchestra tugging and teasing at the sad opening melody, indications were that this would be a musically engrossing event. Bychkov, among other roles, is music director of the Czech Philharmonic. His pre-eminence in responding to Dvořák’s folk-inspired rhythms and modes is never in doubt. Casting was luxurious: the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian versatile and affecting in the title role, the British tenor David Butt Philip an intelligent and musically formidable Prince, with Aleksei Isaev (Vodnik), Sarah Connolly (Ježibaba) and Emma Bell (the Duchess) leading the supporting ensemble. In the opera’s most famous moment, the song to the moon, Grigorian showed all her vocal colours, with the orchestra wrapping itself delicately round every phrase, each instrument – sensuous harp, throbbing horn, melancholy clarinet – casting its own shaft of light.

For Dvořák, the influence of Wagner was ever-present (all the more conspicuous in a week in which I heard The Rhinegold). Rusalka’s wood-spirit sisters are pale versions of Rhinemaidens, but the entire aural landscape Dvořák creates, with its gurgling woodwind undertow, is worlds away from Wagner. The Yee-Abrahami staging – designed by Chloe Lamford with costumes by Annemarie Woods and lighting by Paule Constable – opens with a naturalistic depiction of an underwater haven, with fronds and foliage made, in the interests of sustainability, from leftover fabrics from previous ROH productions. As the opera progresses, this verdant world is destroyed: fresh water by implication turns to sewage, growth to decay, abundance to sad absence and loss. A stampede of applause greeted, especially, the ROH orchestra. They were equal stars.

Steal from the thief. Lust but do not love. Immorality grubs at the core of Wagner’s Das RheingoldThe Rhinegold in English National Opera’s version in a new translation by John Deathridge – the first opera in the composer’s four-part Ring. The director, Richard Jones, and the conductor, Martyn Brabbins, have shed any uncertainties in last season’s The Valkyrie (the second opera in the cycle). The question mark over whether this cycle can be completed, owing to ENO’s financial crisis, hovers as a depressing backdrop to one of the company’s strongest achievements of late.

John Relyea (Wotan), Leigh Melrose (Alberich) and Frederick Ballentine (Loge) in The Rhinegold. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Updating Wagner is no novelty. Lycra, shell suits, white van: all look familiar. The distinction here is that Jones, with his set designer Stewart Laing, choreographer Sarah Fahie and lighting designer Adam Silverman, makes narrative and character the priority. There is little beauty in the omnipresent black plastic fly-screen curtain that flickers distractingly; or in the strange, bulbous white structures that might be Valhalla or may suggest nasty, polluting surfactants foaming on the Rhine. As in Rusalka, denuding nature is an underlying theme.

Two central figures, the god Wotan and his nemesis, the Nibelung Alberich, act as indestructible pillars. The Canadian bass-baritone, John Relyea, possesses a warm, dignified vocal quality that triggers sympathy for this greedy, egocentric god. In contrast, the British baritone Leigh Melrose, as Alberich, bursts with taut, muscular energy: a gold-hungry boss whose production-line workers manufacture bullion like bombs. When he spits his curse at Wotan, Melrose utters every syllable with icy force. Elsewhere in the strong cast, Christine Rice’s star-quality Erda and John Findon’s Mime stand out. Frederick Ballentine, in a role debut, conveys much of the sly, conniving characteristics of Loge, though as yet the voice is a little unvaried. Simon Bailey makes a quirky and affecting Fasolt. I hope ENO finds a way to complete the cycle.

The response to details, announced last week, of music commissioned for King Charles’s coronation in May has come with inevitable carping, not least because it includes that ever-easy target, Andrew Lloyd Webber. The composers come from diverse backgrounds and, within a broadly tonal language, write in different styles. All have a proved facility for choral music, a central tenet of the event in Westminster Abbey and can meet tight deadlines. The king could have chosen a beatbox composer or someone immersed in sound spectra and inaudibly shifting microtones. Instead, the choice is a thoughtful piece of marquetry, suiting place and occasion. Is that so daft?

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