Jamie Tabberer


at the Royal Opera House

When in the headline of another damning article the Daily Mail quotes an opera-goer as saying: "It was like The Only Way is Essex," (‘it’ being the debut of Antonín Dvořák's Rusalka at London’s Royal Opera House) you know you’re onto a good thing.

This is another typically ambitious and surreal production from the ROH. Need we remind you, it was here the fantastically audacious Anna Nicole opera once resided. And when we say surreal, we don’t just mean trippy lighting; we mean grown men in a kinky animal costumes playing frisky human-sized cats.

Rusalka a bit like a Saturday night at Glastonbury: wonderful and bewildering, but not what you’d expect from one of the most famous opera houses in the world – cue uncomfortable laughter from the more conservative in the audience, not to mention the odd boo (always inexplicably thrilling to hear). What’s truly hilarious about this whole situation, though, is that the fairytale origins of Dvořák's story, and its absolutely glorious music conducted to perfection by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, were dramatic enough before the intervention of directors Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler.

A water nymph named Rusalka falls in love with a human prince; in order to pursue him she goes against her goblin-father’s warnings and calls upon a hideous sea witch to exchange her beautiful voice for legs. See what I mean? Of course, the story has more than a little in common with the dramatic spectacle of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid; a timeless yarn that is, essentially, a story for kids. Albeit one that brings a tear to the eye and a thump to the heart of most of the grown men I know, or at least the Disney film can. But this is an altogether darker and more dramatic tale that doesn’t end well; and rubbing salt into the open wounds is the fact that poor Rusalka (or Ariel, if you prefer) is actually a chavtastic prostitute working in a depressingly bare brothel, with sea-witch Jezibaba (or Ursula) the madam.

It’s obviously a brave deviation into metaphorical territory that, inevitably, is getting a lot of people’s back up. We’ll admit, we arrived expecting and looking forward to something pretty, romantic and naturalistic: in the very least we hoped the stagecraft would evoke a lake-side setting. Put simply, that’s not what’s on offer here. Aside from a few filtering effects and shadow play giving the impression of water, this is about as otherworldly as a trip to deepest, darkest Zone 5 London.

It could have been so different. The show’s first five seconds induce gasps of awe when, from a hole in the darkly lit stage, Rusalka emerges and then promptly disappears, but not before extending her legs into the air and flipping around a pale, sparkly and ill-fitting skirt stitched together at the end; something that gives the brief impression of fins. It’s a simple moment, but beautifully effective.

Camilla Nylund’s graceless and eerily childlike Rusalka, lovelorn and incapable of walking in heels, is at once comical and heartstring-tugging and, later, truly terrifying; by the opera’s third grisly act, her death-stare and powerful voice will be forever burnt into your memory. To be fair, the same can be said for the production as a whole. It's bleak aesthetic is as fascinating as the stir it's causing; nevertheless it probably won't be an experience you'll be keen to repeat.


Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden,
020 7240 1200

Visit the Royal Opera House's official website here

For tickets click here

Image: © ROH 2012 / Clive Barda

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