Piotr Beczala as the Prince and Renée Fleming as Rusalka. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas
Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka, a late-comer to the Metropolitan Opera roster, was broadcast around the world on February 8, 2014. Otto Schenk’s production premiered the opera at the Met in 1993 and it has remained in the repertoire ever since.
Schenk’s productions are traditional, lavish jobs akin to Franco Zeffirelli’s. Rusalka is very much in that style and it has many virtues even if some may consider it old-fashioned by now. The first act takes place in a meadow by a lake. Set Designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen provides a realistic-looking lake surrounded by thick brush with the water nymph Rusalka sitting among the branches of a tree. It is a dark and mysterious place.
The Canadian Opera Company produced Rusalka for the first time in 2009, directed by Dmitri Bertman with set designs by Hartmut Schőrghofer. His cutting-edge designs, in contrast to the Met’s, featured opaque curtains and shimmering blue lighting to indicate underwater activity The set featured a revolving stage, a large round porthole, an antiseptic bedroom with florescent lights and pools of water.
A scene from Act 2 of Dvořák's "Rusalka." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The set for the second act of the Met’s production featured a realistic and opulent exterior of a castle with an impressive winding staircase and opulent gardens.
Rusalka is a lyric fairy tale that tells of the water nymph or mermaid named Rusalka (Renée Fleming) who falls in love with a Prince (Piotr Beczala) and decides to become human so she can live with her lover. Her father, the Water Gnome (John Relyea), disapproves of her decision but Rusalka is adamant and asks the Witch Jezibaba (Dolora Zajick) to turn her into a mortal. Becoming mortal is tricky and costly. Rusalka loses her voice in the process and there is worse, much worse, to come
The voiceless Rusalka (Renée Fleming without a voice?) moves in with the Prince but problems develop immediately, not the least of which is a Princess (Emily Magee) who has matrimonial plans for the Prince. Let’s go fast forward to the point where she will kiss the Prince and he will go into Charon’s boat.
It would be difficult to find a more beautiful Rusalka than Fleming. Yes, I am including physical beauty although my main thrust is her vocal performance. She strikes the perfect note as the Water Nymph (helped by Schneider-Siemssen’s sets) and her silken voice shimmers gorgeously.
Tenor Beczala has a voice that is both supple and commanding. Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, painted green and costumed wildly was an impressive and sonorous Water Gnome in a very impressive performance.
Mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick created the role of Jezibaba in 1993 and is still at it, as effective as ever. But for dramatic performance where a look can maim or kill, there is Emily Magee as the Princess. Powerful look and dramatic voice combine for an effective performance.
Dvořák’s opera has some beautiful musical and vocal pieces but I don’t’ find its plot sufficiently varied or interesting to sustain one’s attention throughout. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performed splendidly under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin but the music may have worked as well as a concert piece. Both Schenk’s traditional approach and the more imaginative approach by the Canadian Opera Company failed to convince me that this is an opera that I would lust to see repeatedly.