BWW Review: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered by Met's New RUSALKA
Anyone arriving at a performance of the Met's new RUSALKA, in Mary Zimmerman's production, thinking that there's going to be an evening of Disney-type fun from this distant cousin of THE LITTLE MERMAID, will be in for a big disappointment. But for those seeking beautiful music (including one of opera's great arias), a game cast and good singing, RUSALKA, with soprano Kristine Opolais in the title role, offers a musically satisfying evening.
Antonin Dvorak--perhaps best known for his symphonies, including "From the New World," and for songs and chamber music--longed to be remembered for his operas. He wrote 10 of them, though none of them is exactly a household name; RUSALKA comes closest, outside the Czech Republic at least, with its motifs and other influences of Wagner playing an important role in its musical success. Nevertheless, it took 90 years after its premiere in Prague for the Met to add it to its repertoire.
In some respects, RUSALKA--not a name but her type of water creature--seems a good choice for an opera, with the water nymph making a Faustian deal with the witch, Jezibaba (the marvelous mezzo, Jamie Barton), trading her voice for the ability to canoodle with the Prince (the stylish tenor Brandon Jovanovich) she met in the forest.
The problem, of course, is that her deal means that she's silent for much of Act II and has no way of connecting with the prince, except perhaps by batting her eyelashes. This short-circuits her love affair, and leaves room for a princess to come and seduce the prince (though he needed little prodding), which leads to his downfall and Rusalka's fall from grace. It cuts her off from her family--and from the audience as well, calling on all of soprano Opolais' charisma to move the opera forward.
There's much to enjoy in this opera, however, despite any plot shortcomings. The first act is beautifully designed by Daniel Ostling with lighting by TJ Gerckens, though it's not that different from the production that preceded it. (The third act, however, reminded me of Opolais' last new production, MANON LESCAUT, and its desert in Louisiana.) As Rusalka, soprano Opolais does a gorgeous job with "Song from the Moon," the opera's signature piece, perched high in a tree as the moon quickly rises and moves over her shoulder. She was in good voice for the evening (the second of the run), but I wished she had more to do than be "poor, pale Rusalka," as her father, the Water Gnome (wonderfully sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens, always a great mythological character), refers to her endlessly. Zimmerman didn't do much to show why the charismatic Jovanovich was so bewitched by the nymph, except for the obvious sexual possibilities.
Her opulent dress, covered in water lilies, designed by Mara Blumenfeld, is beautiful to look at but clumsy to move in, as if weighed down by rocks. This followed the instructions of the libretto, which call for her to be held back by the waters of her pond, but it was one time that I wished the librettist's instructions weren't followed to the letter. Blumenfeld's designs were first-rate throughout, particularly in Act II's ball, though I wondered why Jezibaba seemed to be from a different time period than anyone else in the cast. (Oh, those witches do what they want, I guess...)