Antonín Dvořák’s penultimate opera, and the only one to be near the frontier of the standard operatic repertory, was telecast on Saturday February 8th. The opera was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1993 with Gabriela Benacková in the title role. The current performance was the 25th time the Met has staged the work. It has served as a vehicle for Renée Fleming since 1997. She has appeared in every staging of the work at the Met since that time.
Rusalka is a very good opera, far superior to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin which opened the Met’s current season. Of Dvořák’s nine operas, this is the only one I have ever heard. Its strengths are the composer’s melodic fecundity and instrumental facility which he blends into a seamless mix of vocal line and orchestral color and dramatic tension. Though he lived at a time when every composer was either incorporating Wagner’s methods or reacting against them, Rusalka sounds like pure Dvořák. You only have to hear a few bars and you immediately recognize their author. There’s not a trace of Wagner in Rusalka.
The story is a Slavonic Little Mermaid. It’s hard to write an opera that convey deep emotional content when the setting is a fairy tale. The best operas deal with the basic emotions that are common to all. When the main character is not human connecting to an audience is much harder than usual for an art form in which people sing rather than speak. In Rusalka this problem is compounded when the title character goes mute for much of the second act. Dvořák overcomes these problem with as much skill as is possible.
I think there are two explanations for its infrequent performance outside the Czech Republic. It requires a soprano in the title role who can realize Dvořák’s suffering Slavonic heroine without descending into bathos while maintaining the beautiful lyric line the part demands. Even more important is a conductor who can move the piece along as much of the orchestral writing is in style associated with the composer’s mature symphonies. It is both melodic and intensely dramatic. The leadership of the young French-Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin realized the emotional and dramatic content Dvorák put into the score. Without this strong direction the opera can easily lose focus and drag. Nézet-Séguin whose conducting calendar is very busy has a real gift for opera. His presence at the Met is very welcome.
Rusalka fits Ms Fleming’s voice like a bespoke glove. It lies right in the middle of her vocal range. At 54 she stills looks as good as she sounds, which is very good. Her satin sound and her lush vocal line gave her part as much as is possible for a water nymph who has to sing the opera’s most well known number (‘The song to the moon’) atop a tree. Even Fleming herself wonders why Otto Schenk put her up in the cardboard branches for most of the opera’s first scene. She expressed her ongoing bewilderment about this directorial conceit during her first intermission interview.
Piotr Beczala was the perplexed prince who loved the nymph, then didn’t, and then did again. His final change of heart was fatal as she gave him the kiss of death the second time around. Beczala sounded much better than he did in the aforementioned Eugene Onegin. This role, like the soprano’s, lies mainly in the tenor’s middle register. Beczala sang with power and expression throughout the opera except for one strangulated high note somewhere in the vicinity of high C just before he receives Il bacio della morte. He should not have attempted the note; no one would have missed it. Nevertheless, his was a fine effort. No one I can think could have sung the part better.
Dolora Zajick continues to be a force of nature. The great Verdi mezzo has the same limitless vocal resources that she’s shown since her first appearance at the Met in 1988. She was the witch Jezibaba in the first performance of this production in 1993 and continues to own it. At 61, she still seems at her peak. A truly great artist.
Bass John Relyea was the water gnome, Rusalka’s father. Clad in green he looked like Seaweed Man. His dark voice sounded full and resonant except at its top range where his sound went dry and he strained for his notes.
American soprano Emily Magee was the princess who plots to separate the prince from Rusalka. She appears solely in the second act. She has a strong spinto soprano that seems suited for the big Verdi and Strauss roles. She is going to sing the Empress in Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House in London next month. It’s hard to tell from the part she had in this opera how she’ll sound when the whole show, or much of it, depends on her voice – but from what I heard in this performance she should be quite good in bigger and more important parts.
The 20 year old sets and staging worked quite well except in the case of the soprano in the tree. The remainder of the cast all did well. Barbara Willis Sweete’s TV direction fell back on the bad habit of too many ultra close-ups. In summary, an outstanding performance of a wonderful opera.
A treat – here is Zinka Milanov’s 1958 recording of The Song to the Moon. It’s been a favorite of mine since it first appeared.
Anton Dvorák-Jaroslav Kvapil
Kitchen Boy………….Julie Boulianne
First Sprite…………Dísella Lárusdóttir
Second Sprite………..Renée Tatum
Third Sprite…………Maya Lahyani
Set Designer…………Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume Designer……..Sylvia Strahammer
Lighting Designer…….Gil Wechsler
Choreographer………..Carmen De Lavallade
Stage Director……….Laurie Feldman
TV Director………. Barabara Willis Sweete