Anne Sophie Duprels plays the eponymous lead in Scottish Opera’s forthcoming production of Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. She talked to Mark Brown about a character that is three roles in one
Rusalka, the 1901 opera by the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, is little known in Scotland. When Scottish Opera open their production at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal early next month it will be the first time our national opera company has staged the piece, and only the second time it has been presented in Scotland.
The story of Rusalka, a mermaid who falls in love with a prince who swims in her lake, the opera is a combination of Czech folklore and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of The Little Mermaid. To consummate her love for the Prince, Rusalka must become a woman.
However, the witch who grants the mermaid her wish to become human sets a terrible condition on the deal. In order to prevent her man from leaving her for another woman, Rusalka must remain silent.
Scottish Opera is restaging a 2008 production by Grange Park Opera, the much-loved summer season based in a semi-ruined country house in Hampshire. Directed now, as then, by Antony McDonald, it will be conducted by Stuart Stratford, who was appointed as one of Scottish Opera’s music directors in summer of last year.
The cast, which includes Sir Willard White as Rusalka’s father, a merman, has received many critical bouquets. Not least for acclaimed French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels, who reprises her performance as Rusalka.
Duprels readily agrees that the piece overflows with metaphorical possibilities and sexual politics. “Very often with this opera”, she says, “the director will choose to go for the psychological point of view, making it very Freudian.”
However, she is quick to point out, director McDonald has not tried to shoehorn the work into a particular psychological or metaphorical concept. Rather, he has gone for a sumptuously traditional presentation in which the exploration of the psychological depths is left to the performers themselves.
“The story is treated very much as a fairytale”, says Duprels. “You have mermaids, wood nymphs, the water goblin, the witch and the Prince. You see the forest, the lake and the palace.”
The role of Rusalka herself is a fascinating one, says Duprels. “She is many things. In Czech literature she is a wave. Obviously it’s quite difficult to play a wave on stage”, she laughs.
“That’s why Dvorak combines the story with The Little Mermaid. At the beginning of the opera I’m a mermaid, then I’m a human, and, in the end, I’m a ghost. Metaphorically there are so many levels to this.”
Rusalka’s desire for transformation resonates, says the soprano, with many and diverse aspects of the human condition, from a constant yearning for change to a deeply felt sense of one’s real identity lying elsewhere. “Rusalka wants to be something that she isn’t”, she observes.
“It’s as if she wasn’t born in the right body. That is open to interpretation. That’s why it’s so interesting.
“You ask yourself: ‘Why doesn’t she want to remain a mermaid? What is she seeking in becoming a human?’
“She says she wants a soul. What does she expect to discover when she has a soul? There is a real density to the story and to her character.”
The density of Rusalka’s character is intensified by her going through three very distinct forms of being. Even eight years on from the original production, Duprels finds this is a challenge.
“Earlier, in rehearsals, the director asked me to be colder in my playing of Rusalka as a ghost”, she admits. “The music at that moment is very romantic and I was being too human in my portrayal.
“I go from playing an animal, to a human, to a spirit. How do you physicalise that? It’s challenging, but it’s also fantastic to play.”
All of which, I suggest, puts a great onus on Duprels as a performer, not least because, in her human incarnation, Rusalka is required to be voiceless; a strange condition for an opera singer to represent. This, it transpires, is a pet subject of the singer’s.
“It’s very interesting to be mute for this period in the opera”, she agrees. “I’m on stage all the time, and Rusalka and the Prince have a duet in which I can’t sing.
“A performer playing Rusalka needs to be able to act. For me, opera singers are actors who sing.
“You can’t be at the front of the stage and go, ‘here it is, I’m going to deliver a beautiful aria.’ Singers who want to do that should do concerts.
“Opera is theatre. It drives me crazy when I hear singers say, ‘you deal with the voice, it has to be beautiful.’
“I say, ‘yes, but it will be even more beautiful if you act. If your emotions are right, your singing is going to be right.'”
Duprels has had eight years, on and off, of living with the complex character of Rusalka. In that time she has developed as a performer and, as she observes, changed as a person.
The Rusalka she presents in Glasgow and Edinburgh will, appropriately enough, be a character transformed.
Rusalka is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 5, 7 and 9, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14 and 16. For details, visit: scottishopera.org.uk
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 20, 2016
© Mark Brown