The natural world – home to witch, water-goblin and wood-nymph – is permeated with images of fish, fowl and fauna. The world of human society – the home of the Prince – is dominated by a neon crucifix. We are deep in the recesses of the psyche, where animal instinct and social repression confront each other but rarely reach an understanding.

Traditionalists like to dismiss such interpretative shorthand as Regietheater (director’s theatre), but the production of Rusalka that marks the belated Covent Garden debut of Dvorák’s fairy tale – and of the directing duo Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler – is so theatrically exhilarating and musically compelling that, whether or not you follow the footnotes, you are likely to be swept off your feet. First seen in Salzburg in 2008, it has a sophistication that is extremely rare in the semi-commercial environment of the Royal Opera House.

The production’s thesis is that instinct and repression exist in us all. Rusalka’s habitat, enlivened by the nymphs’ body language, is heathen, sensual and uninhibited, the opposite of the stifling milieu of the palace, where nature is seen as something to be controlled or feared. Rusalka’s silence symbolises the failure of communication between the two polarities. She can’t speak to a Prince whose love is fickle. He finds her cold because she won’t play the game of social dissembling.

Both try their best. She dons a bridal gown but can’t help behaving like a stuffed doll. He rolls on the floor with her until he realises he looks a fool. Act Three doesn’t command the same logic, but by then the show (revived by Samantha Seymour) has made its point – and continues to do so, thanks to the spell cast by the conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Camilla Nylund’s Rusalka scores more for actorly focus than vocal radiance. For once, it’s the Prince who gives the most compelling performance: Bryan Hymel sings with a lustre and visceral abandon that is worth travelling continents to hear. With excellent supporting performances from Petra Lang, Alan Held and Agnes Zwierko, this Rusalka represents grown-up opera at its best.

5 stars

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