Among the many layers of meaning in Dvořák's most popular opera, mankind's destruction of nature figures quite high. So it was uncomfortably fitting that while Garsington Opera's new production of Rusalka all but excluded the natural world from its stage, outside the British summer was putting on one of its most damp and frigid evenings.
This big centrepiece of Garsington's season – due at the Edinburgh International Festival in August – had originally been scheduled for 2020, but the virus scuppered that. Whatever unhappy message you choose to take away from this pre-Freudian opera, which tells of the water-nymph Rusalka's ill-fated attempts to win the human love of a Prince and the tragic consequences for everyone involved, the director Jack Furness emphasises a post-industrial aesthetic: even the moonlight in Rusalka's famous Song to the Moon shines through a hole in the rusty metal cistern that dominates Tom Piper's set.
Steel gantries and walkways evoke something between a Victorian waterworks and a decaying Czech spa, and everything in Malcolm Rippeth's lighting is bathed in a watery green. However much Rusalka is a warning in the guise of a fairy tale, Furness still favours clear story-telling over the psychologically penetrating insights of some past productions. There is a fair amount of spectacle thanks to the choreographers Fleur Darkin and Lina Johansson, and the family of Rusalka's wood-nymph sisters is expanded into a troupe of trapeze artists.
Things turn more darkly interesting in Act 2, where the trapezists' ropes are used to hang the game being prepared for the Prince's wedding feast. The Prince's hunting party are foppish fat-cats, and the Prince's bloodied apron indicates that he does his own butchering – Rusalka is horrified by the killing of animals. Shoe-waving choreography supplies a metaphor for this water nymph's trouble and pain in walking, not otherwise explored much in the staging.
The opera's ravishing contemplation of nature is left entirely to the orchestra, and under the baton of Garsington's artistic director Douglas Boyd the Philharmonia lingers over the score's beauties yet keeps up the momentum of this long work. It's not just the character-signposting Leitmotifs that make Rusalka a self-consciously Wagnerian score: what could be more Wagnerian than three nymphs at the water's edge – the first voices to be heard in the opera, like the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold – being pursued by an Alberich-like Vodník? Boyd holds the Wagnerian and Slavonic elements in keen balance, although Act 2's polonaise could do with more characterful swagger.
In her keenly awaited role debut as Rusalka, Natalya Romaniw sings with power and warmth, appropriately bringing a slightly Slavonic edge to the music. Though Act 1's Song to the Moon didn't quite cast its full glowing spell on opening night, needing perhaps more expansive phrasing, Romaniw is moving in her pain and humiliation as she realises she has become neither a woman nor a wood nymph, and can neither fully live nor die. Gerard Schneider is impressive in the challenging role of the Prince, singing with clean-toned, ringing heft.
The water spirit Vodník, Rusalka's father, is potently sung and poignantly portrayed by Musa Mgqungwana. As the witch Ježibaba, who emerges from a giant skull and wears a tiara recalling the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel, Christine Rice relishes her spell-casting. Sky Ingram's Foreign Princess is a brittle creature, and though she may lack the voluptuous tone often associated with this part she gives a strong performance. Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards make a lively trio of nymphs, and John Findon and Grace Durham are a characterful duo in the kitchen, supplying humour in an otherwise dark opera.