A young woman mutilates herself in the hope of winning a man; she gives up her voice, too, which in opera is surely the greatest sacrifice of all. Rusalka is a brutal piece. The music is ravishing — Dvořák spent most of his life pondering how to create his mighty Czech opera and came up with a blend of folk song, luscious nature evocation and Wagnerian epic. What’s so sinister is the coolness and moral ambiguity of Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto response to Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid fairytale. As the water goblin Vodník reminds us at the end, nobody wins.
Prettying up the cruelty only leaves a more insidious aftertaste. Antony McDonald’s production was first seen at Grange Park in 2008 and is confidently revived for Scottish Opera: handsome costumes (nice touch to dress the Prince’s dinner guests in mermaid-tail ballgowns) and a murky black puddle centre-stage with handfuls of black shiny stuff tossed around to suggest enchantment. It’s all reasonably stylish and it never prods below the surface. Other houses have portrayed Vodník as Josef Fritzl or Ježibaba as a brothel matron; here we’re left to add any subtexts ourselves. The choice is typical of Scottish Opera, ever attentive not to spoil our interval ice creams.
Act Three is where the performances take off. Until this point Stuart Stratford’s conducting delivers a muted palette, a little anaemic for my taste in Dvořák, but Rusalka’s return to the lake kickstarts gutsy cellos and voluptuous wind lines. Peter Wedd is wonderful as the Prince, an ideal combination of yearning and cocky the first acts and passionately unhinged in the third. Rusalka is warmly played by Anne Sophie Duprels, best in her ardent scenes with Leah-Marian Jones’s stony Ježibaba. Sir Willard White is Vodník: stern, sad and full of gravitas.
- At Festival theatre, Edinburgh, 14-16 April. Box office: 0131-529 6000.