The week in classical: Rusalka; Pekka Kuusisto / London Chamber Orchestra; LCMF – review

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As a young man, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was playing viola in the Prague opera pit when Richard Wagner came to conduct his own music. The experience left its mark, notably in the most popular of Dvořák’s 10 operas, Rusalka (1900), with its Czech water nymphs, who are surely close cousins of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens. Garsington festival’s ambitious new production, complete with aerialists and tumblers, ropes, ladders and walkways, sinister inky pool and pre-dinner disembowelment, is at once natural and industrial, spectral and spectacular. Conducted by Douglas Boyd and directed by Jack Furness, it shows disturbingly how the tale of a water spirit who seeks light and life among humans mirrors our desires and our worst fears.

Animal imagery courses through, with at one point seven dead animals dangling from the rafters

The setting, in Tom Piper’s designs (lighting by Malcolm Rippeth), has a belle époque atmosphere in keeping with the opera’s composition date. Decorative iron-work suggests a central European lake spa, the colonnades of Marienbad, say, or railway-age splendour, perhaps the Franz Josef station in Prague, where Dvořák spent hours as a committed trainspotter and knew the timetable by heart. A circular platform rises and falls, at times alarmingly, to reveal the depths where Vodnik the water sprite holds sway (played with anguished magnificence by the bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana). Dvořák, in his restlessly surging and melodic score, creates an underwater world with low woodwind and brass: gurgles of cor anglais, bass clarinet, bass trombone and tuba are added to the standard orchestral mix, all vividly played by the soloists of the Philharmonia under Boyd’s incisive direction.

Physical demands were made all round. The well-drilled chorus has to stand, barefoot, in water (“Is it heated? Are they paid extra?” These were urgent interval questions on one of the coldest, wettest nights of the summer.) Rusalka herself swings daringly back and forth on a rope contraption. In Natalya Romaniw, the Welsh-born soprano making her debut in the role two years later than intended, Garsington has an ideal performer. Romaniw negotiates the mighty vocal line with ease, scaling the full and expressive forces of the orchestra and never sounding strained. She acts convincingly, too. Her character, musically identified by ripples of solo harp, is a tangle of complexities. When confronting the lustful embrace of the prince she loves, she feels appalled, hunted. He in turn, vigorously sung by tenor Gerard Schneider, calls her his “white doe”. Animal imagery courses through this production, with at one point seven dead animals dangling from the rafters. Dvořák, from a family of butchers, would have felt at home. All the soloists shone, from Christine Rice’s spine-chilling witch Ježibaba to Sky Ingram’s brittle, shiny Foreign Princess, to the three wood nymphs (Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe, Stephanie Wake-Edwards) and all the supporting ensemble. Catch it at the Edinburgh festival (6, 8 and 9 August).

This is high season for country opera festivals, with some two dozen repertoire options this month alone, an indication of the post-Covid health of the art form. It’s easy to dwell on the devastation of the past two years for musical life, but we should cheer loudly, too, the incredible, determined bounce back. Every musician in the London Chamber Orchestra had managed to get to St John’s Smith Square on the first day of the national rail strike (which forced some venues, such as the Royal Opera House, to cancel). Their concert with the Finnish violinist-conductor Pekka Kuusisto was the last of the season. Despite the inevitably depleted audience, a party mood prevailed.

Kuusisto, whose star qualities include standup skills, managed to make a joke about Top Gun while introducing Mozart, Haydn and a world premiere by Freya Waley-Cohen, LCO composer in residence this season. Her highly effective Pocket Cosmos – she quotes the novelist Ursula K Le Guin and poet Rebecca Tamás as her starting points – moves from a bubbling, popping, feathered array of orchestral sounds to a quiet, eerie, interior world. Now more people should hear it.

For everyone who had made complicated journeys to be there (people behind me were checking their apps to work out how they would get home), Kuusisto’s warm welcome created a genial spirit of community. This may appear to have nothing to do with the performance, which, as it happens, was first rate: Kuusisto was an airborne, impeccable soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5; he directed from the violin for Haydn’s joyous, energetically played Symphony No 88 in G. In fact, that communality is a vital part. Overlook it at your peril. Audiences still need to be persuaded to leave home. A smiling orchestra, oddly rare, is a tonic.

London contemporary music festival, founded in 2013, offers up wild and brilliantly coloured fruits not easily found in one place, from music to film, rap and poetry. Different voices, liminal and essential, jostle together in a way that invites you to sample as appeals. This year’s event, five days taking place at Woolwich Works (a former fireworks factory next to the Thames), was called The Big Sad. As the programme put it, the title reflected the broken mood of our recent past, though the business of listening in this beautiful, airy space banished all melancholy. Pieces that stood out on the day I went were Requiem, a compelling improvisation by solo drummer Crystabel Riley, and Eclipse Plumage by the Italian, Berlin-based composer Clara Iannotta, in which electronics, piano and strings conjured a whispered sound world using magnetic fields (no, I don’t know either).

The centrepiece was the UK premiere of dust II (2018/20) by Rebecca Saunders. For two percussionists, Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothbrust, and a battery of instruments, its starting point is Samuel Beckett’s That Time, in which he envisions a library where all the books have dissolved into dust. The piece starts so quietly you can’t tell it has begun, slowly becoming more clangorous, using several large bells, and suspended triangles, which spin and resonate long after being struck. Beckett was thinking of the book of Genesis: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. An attentive crowd, very much alive, hoovered it up.

Star ratings (out of five)
Rusalka
★★★★
LCO
★★★★
LCMF
★★★★

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