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...)
It didn't really matter how the witch was dressed, of course, since Barton can steal the show just by opening those velvet tonsils of her and letting the sumptuous sounds and array of colors burst forth. And she did. Zimmerman has talked about how she wanted to lighten the opera and basically did so using Barton and her cast of familiars. I'd listen to Barton anytime--oh, that velour!--but I wished the director had given her character more of the gravitas it called for.
Tenor Jovanovich was properly callow as the Prince, strutting and posturing to better tempt the ladies in the court, and clearly with a short attention span. His duet with Rusalka in Act III was sumptuous and moving and perfectly in tune with the sadness of the opera's resolution. Soprano Katarina Dalayman may have been over the top as the Foreign Princess, but the effect was just right in stealing the thunder of "poor, pale Rusalka" (yes, again) at the ball in Act II.
Having heard Zimmerman explain her reasons for the dance in this act--basically, for the audience to take their minds off the libretto--I was surprised at how effective Austin McCormack's choreography was in furthering the story. It showed how naïve Rusalka had been in trying to compete with the bright colors and lusty doings of the Prince's life, without being able to say a word or have physical contact with him.
The supporting cast was quite strong all around. As the First Wood Sprite--whose costumes looked like they'd been painted by Fragonard--soprano Hyesang Park was inspired, leading the trio with Megan Marino and Cassandra Zoe Velasco; I first heard her in LA SONNAMBULA at Juilliard and it was exciting to hear her voice bloom. Mezzo Daniela Mack--who had been such a vibrant presence in the opening extravaganza last summer at Mostly Mozart--was utterly winning with her warm mezzo as the Kitchen Boy, alongside the humor of baritone Alan Opie as the Gamekeeper.
The Met Orchestra was in fine form under Sir Mark Elder.
The Saturday, February 25 matinee performance of Rusalka will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries around the world.
Additional performances: February 13, 17, 21, 25mat; March 2. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time: 3 hours and 40 minutes, two intermissions.
Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of Rusalka are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.