Rusalka review: The message fights with the music in this eco-conscious staging

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Reading a director’s rationale before watching their take on a classic can blunt the freshness of one’s responses. But there are times when some preliminary swotting is essential, and so it is with the Rusalka of co-directors Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee, whose Royal Opera House production engages provocatively with Dvorak’s plot.

That plot is a variant on a standard fairytale trope. A water spirit falls in love with a prince, and, with the help of a witch, becomes human in order to marry him. But the pair can only stay together so long as she stays dumb, and he stays faithful.

But this marriage of earth and water founders in contact with human society. Distraught by the prince’s infidelity, Rusalka breaks her side of the bargain by explaining that the prince will die if he kisses her: penitent, he begs to be allowed that kiss, and dies when she grants it. Released from the fatal pact, Rusalka disappears back into the depths whence she came.

What these directors impose on the plot is a full-blown Extinction Rebellion worldview. For them, the story is not about a conflict between nature and humanity, but about humanity’s need to stop exploiting and polluting nature, and instead to live in harmony with it.

So the set before the fatal pact is to be a verdant idyll, and after it an arid waste. Off-cuts from the costumes of an old ROH Carmen production will be recycled as “ecologically sound” elements of the fictional water kingdom. The chorus will look as if they are covered in oil, but that will be an illusion. The prince’s voluntary self-immolation will be presented as “an unexpected redemption”, symbolising humanity’s finding a way back to its ecologically prelapsarian state. The directors rightly regard this opera as Dvorak’s ode to nature.

After the busy virtue-signalling in the programme, it’s a relief to dive into the seductive wa...