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Profoundly Moving

English Touring Opera's 'Rusalka',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


We finally caught up with English Touring Opera's new production of Rusalka on its last night [29 November 2008] at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

James Conway's production with elegantly evocative but minimal sets by Paul Wills, placed the opera in colonial Haiti; representing the divide between water nymphs and humans by the racial/cultural divide. Rusalka (Donna Bateman), the Wood Sprites (Angela Caesar, Abigail Kelly, Alison Crookendale) and the Water Spirit (Kiel Watson) were black whereas the Prince (Richard Roberts) and the Foreign Princess (Camilla Roberts) were white colonials.

This almost works. Rodney Blumer's translation had not been adjusted so that it was clear there was a little mismatch between action and word. Luckily the cast were so convincing and involving that this didn't matter.

Paul Wills' semi-abstract set for Act 1 was such that you had to exercise your imagination; it wasn't quite clear where it was meant to be. The three wood sprites were unsupported by dancers, as sometimes happens. But they worked hard and created the right sort of light-hearted atmosphere. Kiel Watson is a large man with a wonderful presence and a great sense of gravitas allied to a lovely dark voice. This made him ideal as the Water Spirit (here more of a water carrier).

As Rusalka, Donna Bateman, had an enchanting, shy and retiring stage presence; her voice was warm with a substantial vibrato. This was not unpleasant but I would have preferred more line and less vibrato; though her account of Rusalka's Hymn to the Moon was touching nonetheless.

Fiona Kimm's Jezibaba was fierce and characterful without being grim or caricatured. She was as much a wise-woman as a witch. Her transformation of Rusalka into a human was not as gruesome as at Grange Park Opera this summer. It mainly involved Rusalka having her feet bound up.

The Prince, when he appeared, was dressed in pukka colonial style. Richard Roberts seems to have one of those high tension voices that seem to sound constantly under stress. He has sung Steve (Jenufa) for ETO and will be singing Boris (Katya Kabanova), both roles which sound as if they would suit him well. But on the last night of a long run on a cold and foggy evening, he seemed unable to summon up the lyricism required of the role. The Prince is a tricky role, requiring that magical mix of power and lyricism which many tenors find difficult. Roberts was slim of figure with an open stage persona, but throughout the opera his voice sounded not quite perfectly in control.

For the second act the setting became neo-colonial with blinds and a chandelier. Camilla Roberts was a strong Foreign Princess. She was less bitchy than Janis Kelly at Grange Park Opera, but no less powerful and commanding. Bateman coped well with the demands of not singing. She had created an appealing character and we were definitely rooting for her.

By Act 3 when things got more serious, Bateman's voice seemed more in line with the character and her final aria and closing scene were profoundly moving. To Richard Roberts's credit he remained in control of his voice till the end and whilst never lovely, was passionate and committed.

Under conductor Alex Ingram, the instrumental ensemble (just twelve players) gave a winning performance of Ian Farrington's orchestral reduction. There were moments, such as the end of Act 1, where we missed the sweep of Dvorák's full orchestration, but by and large Farrington's reworking was remarkably successful. This was not one of ETO's greatest triumphs. But as a way of taking Rusalka on tour it was very successful, musical and, ultimately, profoundly moving. What more could you want?

Copyright © 1 December 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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