Rusalka; Pekka Kuusisto / London Chamber Orchestra; LCMF – review

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As a young man, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was playing the viola in the Prague opera pit when Richard Wagner arrived to conduct his own music. The experience left its mark, especially on the most popular of Dvořák’s 10 operas, Rusalka (1900), with its Czech water nymphs, who are surely close cousins ​​of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens. With acrobats and mountebanks, ropes, ladders and catwalks, a sinister pool of ink and pre-dinner disembowelment, the Garsington festival’s ambitious new production is at once natural and industrial, spectral and spectacular. Hosted by Douglas Boyd and directed by Jack Furness, it hauntingly shows how the story of a water spirit seeking light and life among humans reflects our wishes and worst fears.

Animal images flow, with seven dead animals hanging from the rafters.

The set design, with designs by Tom Piper (lighting by Malcolm Rippeth), has a belle époque atmosphere befitting the date the opera was composed. The decorative ironwork suggests a Central European spa lake, the colonnades of Marienbad, for example, or the splendor of the railway age, perhaps Prague’s Franz Josef Station, where Dvořák spent hours as an enthusiastic train watcher and knew the timetable. memory. A circular platform rises and falls, sometimes alarmingly, to reveal the depths where Vodnik, the water sprite (played with anguished magnificence by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana) dominates. Dvořák, in his hauntingly rising, melodic score, creates an underwater world with woodwinds and low brass: gurgling cor anglais, bass clarinet, bass trombone, and tuba are added to the standard orchestral mix, all vividly played by the soloists of the Philharmonic under Boyd’s incisive conducting.

Physical demands were made in every way. The well-trained choir has to stand, barefoot, in the water (“Is it heated? Do they get paid extra?” These were urgent interval questions on one of the coldest, wettest nights of summer). Rusalka herself swings boldly from side to side. on a wind-up contraption. In Natalya Romaniw, the Welsh-born soprano who makes her debut in the role two years later than anticipated, Garsington has an ideal performer. Romaniw negotiates the powerful vocal line with ease, scaling the full, expressive forces of the orchestra and never sounding tense. She acts convincingly, too. Her character, musically identified by the waves of a harp solo, is a tangle of complexities. Facing the lustful embrace of the prince she loves, she feels terrified, harassed. He, in turn, energetically sung by the tenor Gerard Schneider, calls her her “white doe”. Images of animals run through this production, with 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 creepy witch Ježibaba to Sky Ingram’s brittle and brilliant Foreign Princess, to the three Wood Nymphs (Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe, Stephanie Wake-Edwards) and the entire supporting ensemble. Catch it at the Edinburgh festival (August 6, 8 and 9).

This is peak season for country opera festivals, with some two dozen repertory choices this month alone, an indication of the art form’s post-Covid health. It’s easy to dwell on the devastation of the last two years for musical life, but we should also loudly celebrate the incredible and determined recovery. Every musician in London Chamber Orchestra he had made it 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 be cancelled). His concert with Finnish violinist-conductor Pekka Kuusisto was the last of the season. Despite the inevitably small audience, a party atmosphere prevailed.

Kuusisto, whose stellar qualities include standup skills, managed to make a joke about top gun while featuring Mozart, Haydn and a world premiere by Freya Waley-Cohen, LCO’s Composer-in-Residence this season. its highly effective pocket cosmos – she cites novelist Ursula K Le Guin and poet Rebecca Tamás as her starting points – she moves from a variety of bubbling, popping, feathered orchestral sounds into a quiet, mysterious inner world. Now more people should hear it.

For everyone who’d made difficult journeys to get there (people behind me were checking their applications to find out how they’d get home), Kuusisto’s warm welcome created a great community spirit. This may seem like it has nothing to do with the performance, which, by the way, was top notch: Kuusisto was a flawless, streamlined soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5; he conducted Haydn’s lively and energetic Symphony No. 88 in G from the violin. In fact, that community is a vital part. Skip it at your own risk. The public still needs to be persuaded to leave home. A strangely weird smiling orchestra is a tonic.

london contemporary music festival, founded in 2013, offers wild and brightly colored fruits that are not easily found in one place, from music to film, rap and poetry. Different voices, liminal and essential, are pushed together in a way that invites you to try as appeals. This year’s event, which took place over five days at the Woolwich Works (an old fireworks factory by the Thames), was called The Big Sad. As the program said, the title reflected the broken mood of our recent past, although the task of listening in this beautiful and ethereal space banished all melancholy. The pieces that stood out the day I went were Requiema compelling improvisation by lead drummer Crystabel Riley, and eclipse plumage by the Berlin-based Italian composer Clara Iannotta, in which electronics, piano and strings conjured up a sound world whispered through 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, their starting point is the work of Samuel Beckett That moment, in which he imagines a library where all the books have dissolved into dust. The piece begins so quietly you can’t tell it’s started, it slowly grows louder, using several large bells and suspended triangles, which spin and resonate long after they are played. Beckett was thinking of the book of Genesis: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” An attentive crowd, very alive, breathed it in.

Star ratings (out of five)

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