Swansea-born soprano Natalya Romaniw has made a long-awaited return to Garsington Opera where, in pre-Covid times, she wowed audiences as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mařenka in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. This season she makes her debut in the title role of Dvořák’s penultimate stage work (there are ten published operas), which had been scheduled for 2020. Cast changes on the night when I attended mercifully did not include Wales’s premiere operatic soprano. But replacements were needed for Musa Mgqungwana’s water spirit Vodník, taken by Henry Waddington and Gerard Schneider’s Prince sung by John Finden. Fears of being short-changed vanished the moment these understudies took to the stage, and there followed an evening of remarkable singing with no loss of chemistry between fresh cast members and Romaniw.
Remarkable too was the collaboration between director Jack Furness and designer Tom Piper who devised a post-industrial take on Dvořák’s retelling of the Undine myth in which a water-nymph’s attempts to win the love of a human Prince ends in tragedy. Dominating the stage is a large circular platform (atmospherically lit by Malcolm Rippeth) which when elevated reveals a dark lake where the water nymphs periodically play and splash, and where Rusalka confesses her feelings to the water spirit Vodnik. A single hole allows entry to the human world, framed by a decorated wrought-iron structure evoking a Victorian water pumping station or even a late 19th century railway station – an idea that would surely have appealed to the composer who liked nothing better than to watch trains pass through Prague’s Franz Josef I station. From the set’s balconies ropes enable aerialists to dangle and spiral precariously. Non-singing wood nymphs, choreographed by Lina Johansson, provide a no small measure of spectacle (but also distraction) as they descend to the underwater world, its atmosphere wonderfully captured too in the gurgling woodwind and rippling harp of Dvořák’s score which has more than a hint of Wagner’s Rheingold in its opening scene.
There’s much to catch the eye in the Act 2 palace scene where its kitchen – more a little shop of horrors – is festooned with dead carcasses hanging ready for the wedding feast. If their ominous presence underlines man’s callous attitude to nature, a similar cruelty is mirrored in the indifference to Rusalka by the wedding guests sung by Garsington Festival Chorus. They ignore her attempts to join them at the celebratory dance (moves courtesy of Fleur Darkin) and their grotesquely rouged cheeks gives them a doll-like detachment to suggest their lack of humanity. That Rusalka is an outsider is, of course, accentuated by her silent presence throughout most of the act as a penalty exacted earlier by the witch-governess Ježibaba who insists she can only marry her beloved by agreeing to be mute. Romaniw fully inhabits her role here where her otherness and alienation are movingly portrayed.
Desire and bitter disappointment are clearly defined in Romaniw’s doom-laden water nymph. Her singing is a little uneven at times (her intrusive vibrato in the ‘Song to the Moon’ may not be to everyone’s taste), but there is plenty of power and always a strong sense of communication. She’s at her best when not pushing against the orchestra or when giving agitated expression to ‘All my charms are in vain’ as she begs Vodnik to help her rekindle the Prince’s love for her. But it’s her final passionate encounter with him where her voice and artistry truly come into their own.
Her rapport with the Prince was totally believable, with John Finden’s ardent tenor blazing above the stave, unflinching in its demands, yet able to condense the sound to summon pleas for forgiveness which he does to touching effect. Christine Rice, clad in a ball gown and first appearing from a potion-making skull, is a commanding Ježibaba and brings her firmly focused mezzo and customary dramatic flair to the role. Her ‘back so soon?’ on Rusalka’s return to the lake adds to her black-hearted malevolence. As Vodnik, Henry Waddington moved from initial brusqueness to comforting father figure, applying plenty of lyrical warmth with his encounters with Rusalka in Act 2. Sky Ingrams impresses as the seductive foreign Princess, holding the ear and the eye; just a pity her role is so limited. Elsewhere, there is a fine double act between Grace Durham’s cheeky cook and Dominick Felix’s put-upon gamekeeper, both giving characterful cameos. Some lovely singing unfolded too from the three water nymphs (Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards) making especially memorable contributions whilst suspended above the stage.
In the pit Douglas Boyd provides fluent direction and draws rapt playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, unveiling with flawless sensitivity Dvořák’s wealth of musical influences, nowhere better than in the national Czech idioms of the dance episodes. The production continues at Garsington until July 19 and then transfers to the Edinburgh Festival. Plenty of opportunities to hear Natalya Romaniw!
Header Image: © Julian Guidera