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Martin-Oliver's production does several very good things and some weak ones. Too often -- even making allowance for the understandable pressure of short rehearsal time -- performers fend for themselves. There is a lack of planned gesture (which spares us futile ones, but leaves a hiatus). Jezibaba (incessantly), but even Rusalka and her father too, are left to make half-moves of no obvious relevance, or circling pirouettes that look merely like time-killers and space-fillers. Singers require shaping, indeed positive nurturing into move and gesture, more than actors : only the Turnspit and (to some extent) the Princess were in actual control of their stance. The children play inept, irritating pinching games around their pitcher frontstage, distracting rather than adding.

Director Robin Martin Oliver discussing the role with Julian Close (the Watersprite) during a break in rehearsals. © John Credland LBIPP 2001

Yet Act II runs as smooth as clockwork : the Turnspit acts his socks off (Sarah Jillian Cox -- a girl-boy who actually moves like a boy; compare the Royal Opera's recent Pfitzner Palestrina).

Christopher Parke as the Gamekeeper and Sarah Jillian Cox as the Turnspit/Kitchen Boy supplying light relief in Stowe Opera's new staging of 'Rusalka'.  © John Credland LBIPP 2001

The guests process unaffectedly across the raised rearstage. There are stylish principals' and chorus entries (the magical spring-cum-waterfall having reverted to ceremonial steps : Dvorák serves up virtually a whole Slavonic dance -- beautifully phrased by Secret and his players -- to welcome the court). The Prince and Princess's dalliances actually look royal. And the 'frozen' slow courtly waltz, as the Water-Goblin answers Rusalka's mid-festivity appeal is mesmerising. The last rencontre between Prince and Rusalka, she poised on the steps, he ultimately doing a slow death-cascade down the waterfall below her, was (almost visibly) -- melting. If this standard were consistent, Stowe's thoughtful productions would be positively stunning. They have many of the ingredients (and their costuming is good too).

Marie Vassiliou (Foreign Princess) and David Watkin-Holmes (Prince) in Act II of  Dvorák's 'Rusalka'. © John Credland LBIPP 2001

Flaws in the lighting (constant shadows on faces) and the serious lack of surtitles certainly didn't help. The main complaint about each was the lack of clarity -- affecting not just the visual but (crucially) intelligibility. Not understanding the words reduces some parts to mime, or even pantomime : we sense the outline characters; but who precisely, to those unversed in fairy tale or Czech folklore, are the Woman in Red, the garrulous serving staff, the circling fat lady? And what paradox persuades the Prince to return to Rusalka? Dvorák's lines have it all; here, the narrative often eluded, and ubiquitous darkness merely compounded the problem.

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Copyright © 7 August 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK





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