First, a brief geography lesson. Bydgoszcz (nicknamed Little Berlin) is the eighth largest city in Poland, with a population of around 360,000, located about halfway between Gdańsk and Łódź, straddling the Brda River. On the basis of this production of Opera Nova’s Rusalka, its opera company is in extremely fine shape. The geography is important since director Kristina Wuss sets events in Bydgoszcz itself. The city has never had a prince and nothing remains of its castle other than a foundation stone. It has no lake either … but it has a river and this is central to Wuss’s production, which depicts Bydgoszcz in the 19th century.
Vodník (the Water Goblin) is here represented as Jerzy Kędziora’s sculpture Man Crossing the River (commemorating Poland’s entry into the European Union) which is suspended over the Brda near the opera house. Among the landmarks that would be familiar to the audience is the fountain Children Playing with a Goose, which appears as a statue in Act 2. The Jerzy Sulima-Kamiński Bridge forms the basis of Mariusz Napieraa’s beautiful set. Sprites frolic in the water beneath the bridge while the human inhabitants cross it, taking an evening moonlit stroll. The bridge moves during Rusalka’s transformation by Ježibaba, a femme fatale figure here, to take us to its far bank. Act 2 looks handsome: a tram trundles across the bridge beneath a giant moon. The Foreign Princess is a vamp in red silk lingerie, eventually luring the prince into her clam-shaped boudoir!
There is much poignant imagery too. During the Song to the Moon, Rusalka lights a candle and fixes it to a wreath of flowers before casting it down the river. The ‘love at first sight’ meeting between the Prince and Rusalka is utterly believable, the Prince teetering along a plank on the surface of the river to reach her. Rusalka’s leap from the bridge in Act 3 is dramatically done.
On the whole, vocal performances are very good, if a little lighter than you might expect in this repertoire, which approaches Wagnerian weight. Magdalena Polkowska is a charming, girlish Rusalka, her lyric soprano beautifully poised. Tadeusz Szlenkier’s Prince is similarly light-voiced but they are well matched. Jacek Greszta is a sturdy Vodník and Darina Gapicz is a vibrant Ježibaba. The only disappointment is Katarzyna Nowak-Stańczyk’s throaty Foreign Princess.
Maciej Figas draws committed playing from the Opera Nova Orchestra and the whole performance is captured in wonderful 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. A downside is that the DVD’s only cue points are at the start of each act, but otherwise this is a terrific achievement all round.