The week in classic: Rusalka; Pekka Kuusisto / London Chamber Orchestra; LCMF | Classical music
Ahe young man, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was playing the viola in the pit of the Prague Opera when Richard Wagner came to conduct his own music. The experience has left its mark, notably in the most popular of Dvořák’s 10 operas, Rusalka (1900), with its Czech water nymphs, surely close cousins of Wagner’s Daughters of the Rhine. Garsington’s ambitious new festival production, with aerials and goblets, ropes, ladders and catwalks, a sinister pool of ink and a before-dinner disembowelment, is at once natural and industrial, spectral and spectacular. Directed by Douglas Boyd and directed by Jack Furness, it shows in a disturbing way how the story of a water spirit who seeks light and life among humans reflects our desires and our worst fears.
The decor, designed by Tom Piper (lighting by Malcolm Rippeth), has a Belle Époque atmosphere in keeping with the opera’s date of composition. The decorative ironwork evokes a Central European lake spa, the colonnades of Marienbad, for example, or the splendor of the railway era, perhaps the Franz Josef station in Prague, where Dvořák spent hours observing the trains and knew the schedules by heart. A circular platform rises and falls, sometimes alarmingly, to reveal the depths where water sprite Vodnik reigns (played with anguished magnificence by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana). Dvořák, in his melodic and restless score, creates an underwater world with low woodwinds and brass: gurgling English horn, bass clarinet, bass trombone and tuba are added to the standard orchestral mix, all played in a alive by the soloists of the Philharmonie under the incisive direction of Boyd.
Physical demands were made at all levels. The well-drilled choir must stand barefoot in the water (“Is it heated? Are they paid extra?” These were urgent interval questions on one of the coldest nights and the wettest parts of the summer.) on a rope craft. In Natalya Romaniw, the Welsh-born soprano making her debut in the role two years later than expected, Garsington has an ideal performer. Romaniw negotiates the powerful vocal line with ease, scaling the full, expressive forces of the orchestra and never sounding strained. She also acts convincingly. His character, musically identified by solo harp undulations, is a tangle of complexities. Faced with the lustful embrace of the prince she loves, she feels dismayed, hunted. He in turn, vigorously sung by the tenor Gérard Schneider, calls her his “white doe”. Animal imagery runs through this production, with at one point seven dead animals hanging from the rafters. Dvořák, from a family of butchers, would have felt at home. All the soloists shone, from Christine Rice’s chilling witch Ježibaba to Sky Ingram’s crisp and brilliant Foreign Princess, to the three wood nymphs (Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe, Stephanie Wake-Edwards) and the entire ensemble of support. Catch it at the Edinburgh International Festival (August 6, 8 and 9).
It’s high season for country opera festivals, with some two dozen repertoire options this month alone, an indication of the art form’s post-Covid health. It’s easy to dwell on the devastation of the past two years to musical life, but the incredible, determined rebound must also be loudly applauded. Each musician of London Chamber Orchestra had managed to make it to St John’s Smith Square on the first day of the National Railway Strike (which forced some venues, such as the Royal Opera House, to cancel). Their concert with Finnish violinist-conductor Pekka Kuusisto was the last of the season. Despite the inevitably exhausted audience, a festive atmosphere prevailed.
Kuusisto, whose star qualities include stand-up skills, managed to crack a joke on Superior gun while featuring Mozart, Haydn and a world premiere by Freya Waley-Cohen, the LCO’s composer-in-residence this season. She is very effective pocket cosmos – she cites novelist Ursula K Le Guin and poet Rebecca Tamás as starting points – moves from a bubbling, popping and shuddering set of orchestral sounds to a calm and eerie inner world. Now more people should hear it.
For anyone who had made complicated journeys to be there (people behind me were checking their apps to find out how they would get home), Kuusisto’s warm welcome created an awesome community spirit. This may seem to have nothing to do with the performance, which, it turns out, was top-notch: Kuusisto was an airy, impeccable soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5; he conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in cheerful and energetic G from the violin. In fact, this community is a lifeblood. Forget it at your peril. The public has yet to be persuaded to leave their homes. A smiling orchestra, curiously rare, is a tonic.
London Contemporary Music Festival, founded in 2013, offers wild and brilliantly colored fruits that are not easily found in one place, from music to cinema, rap and poetry. Different voices, liminal and essential, jostle in a way that invites to sample like calls. This year’s event, five days taking place at Woolwich Works (a former fireworks factory beside the River Thames), was called The Big Sad. As the program said, the title reflected the shattered vibe of our recent past, even if listening in this beautiful, airy space banished all melancholy. The pieces that stood out the day I went were Requiema gripping improvisation from solo drummer Crystabel Riley, and Eclipse Plumage by Berlin-based Italian composer Clara Iannotta, in which electronics, piano and strings evoked a whispered world of sound using magnetic fields (no, I don’t know either).
The Centerpiece 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, his starting point is that of Samuel Beckett This time, in which he envisions a library where all the books have dissolved into dust. The piece begins so quietly that you can’t tell it has started, slowly getting louder, using several large bells and hanging triangles, which spin and resonate long after being struck. Beckett thought of the book of Genesis: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” An attentive, lively crowd was sucking him in.
Star rating (out of five)