Rusalka – Lyric fairy-tale in three acts to a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil after the tale Undine by Friedrich Heinrich Carl de la Motte Fouqué [sung in Czech with English Met Titles by Christopher Bergen]
Rusalka – Renée Fleming
Prince – Aleksandrs Antonenko
Foreign Princess – Christine Goerke
Ježibaba – Stephanie Blythe
Water Gnome – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Kitchen Boy – Kate Lindsey
Gamekeeper – James Courtney
First Wood Sprite – Kathleen Kim
Second Wood Sprite – Brenda Patterson
Third Wood Sprite – Edyta Kulczak
Hunter – David Won
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Otto Schenk – Production
Laurie Feldman – Stage Director
Günther Schneider-Siemssen – Set designer
Sylvia Strahammer – Costume designer
Gil Wechsler – Lighting designer
Carmen De Lavallade – Choreographer
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 9 March, 2009
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City
In this Metropolitan Opera revival of Otto Schenk’s 1993 production of Dvořák’s “Rusalka”, all of the elements are in place to charm. The tuneful, often-symphonic score, interpreted sensitively by Jiří Bělohlávek, shows off Dvořák at his best, and the production is true to the spirit of the opera’s fairy-tale plot. This is one of Renée Fleming’s signature roles, and she was in fine form and surrounded by a stellar cast that included an auspicious Met debut by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko.
“Nobody expects a Czech opera at the Metropolitan to be sung in the original language”, wrote New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg, reviewing the Met’s production of Janáček’s “Jenůfa” in 1974. But successive Met productions in the early 1990s of Janáček’s “Kát’a Kabanová”, a revival of “Jenůfa”, and then Dvořák’s “Rusalka”, all featuring Slovak soprano Gabriela Beňačková, were sung in Czech, and these operas have been performed in that language ever since. With Met Titles offering translations into multiple languages at every seat, there is every reason to continue, and even expand, this practise.
Schenk’s production, acquired from Wiener Staatsoper, tells this fairy tale in quite literal terms, with the human characters being well aware of the existence and powers of sprites, witch and gnome – and able to interact with them. This production is by the same team that staged Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” for the Met, and stylistic similarities are evident. The Schenk “Ring” is being retired after its final performances this May, to be succeeded by one by Robert Lepage, whose rather abstract, high-tech “La Damnation de Faust” earlier this season was much more in keeping with current fashions in theatrical and operatic production. This “Rusalka”, even if a throwback to an earlier era at the Met, remains quite pleasing to the eye as well as the ear, with both senses able to appreciate Carmen De Lavallade’s choreography, especially the courtiers’ dances in the second act.
Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets are both attractive and utilitarian. The lake and meadow, where the first and third acts are set, shimmer by moonlight and glow in the dawn, thanks to Gil Wechsler’s excellent lighting. A hollow tree provides a high perch from which Fleming gave a rapturous rendition of her signature aria, ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém’ (Song to the Moon) – the first thing she ever sang at the Met (in its 1988 National Council Winners Concert). The important demarcation between water, home to Rusalka and her father, the water gnome Vodník, and dry land, inhabited by wood sprites, the witch Ježibaba and the human characters, is managed effectively, both at the lakeside and in a pool in the garden adjoining the Prince’s castle in the second act.
Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto is based on the fairy tale “Undine” by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, but its plot also has elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. Rusalka, a water sprite, falls in love with a prince when he swims in the lake, and she wishes to become human. Her water-gnome father grudgingly suggests that she consult the witch Ježibaba, who agrees to make Rusalka human, but warns that she will be unable to speak to humans and that if she fails to find love she will be cursed eternally and her would-be lover will die – precisely the fate to which they succumb at the opera’s close.
The most obvious problem with this plot is that it leaves the star character silent for nearly half of the opera. As a result, whenever the time seems ripe for a love duet between Rusalka and the prince, none ever materializes, although her presence is reflected in the orchestral accompaniments to the prince’s arias. Fortunately, the abundance of beautiful music for Rusalka before and after she is under the witch’s spell, all sung ravishingly by Fleming, provides some compensation for her having to remain mute for most of the second act.
In her role debut as the witch Ježibaba, Stephanie Blythe adds yet another memorable character to her growing repertory, her powerful mezzo-soprano voice conveying both menace and humour. She took command as she concocted her potion in a comedic scene filled with clever special effects and in which children costumed as frogs, mice, bats and insects played a delightful part. Once Rusalka drinks the potion and becomes human, the prince is drawn to her and takes her with him to his castle. Aleksandrs Antonenko, in his Met debut, made a dashing prince, with a strong and affecting tenor voice to match that heroic image. This was singing of star quality.
Christine Goerke made much of the short but powerful role of the foreign princess who wins over the Prince’s affections when the mute Rusalka is unresponsive to him. Goerke’s character is the closest thing to a villain in this plot, and she was convincingly imperious in her resentment of Rusalka and her wooing of the Prince. Her rich mezzo voice was strong and clear right from the high C in her opening bars to her cruel rejection of the prince at the end of Act Two.
Vodník, the water gnome, appears at first to resemble the Alberich of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” – when he enters in the opening scene he encounters three frolicking maidens repeating nonsense syllables who tease him and then reject his amorous advances. Vodník is no villain, however, but rather a caring father who tries to protect his daughter and is vengeful toward the prince who rejects her and thereby seals her doom. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson sang with a warmth and sincerity that brought a sense of humanity to this character, even as his darkly-lit, otherworldly costume and makeup set him apart from the other characters.
The remainder of the supporting cast was excellent. The singing and dancing of wood-sprites Kathleen Kim, Brenda Patterson (in her Met debut), and Edyta Kulczak, and the expository dialogues between Kate Lindsey’s Kitchen Boy and James Courtney’s Gamekeeper were performed in lively fashion. The pleasing baritone voice of David Won’s Hunter contributed to the atmospheric breaking of dawn following Rusalka’s transformation from sprite to human.
Jiří Bělohlávek has been of late the Met’s conductor of choice for Czech opera. The Met Orchestra was in fine form, with the woodwinds standing out throughout. Particularly noteworthy were contributions from harp, clarinet and cor anglais, which were heard in the recurring motifs associated with water and Rusalka.
In the final act, Ježibaba urges Rusalka to save herself by killing the Prince, but she refuses, sealing his fate and her own. The opera’s final scene, which is as close as Rusalka and the prince come to singing together (their voices overlap by less than half a measure), was beautifully staged. When the Prince returns to the meadow and calls for Rusalka, she rises from the lake and walks slowly across the water toward the Prince, warning him that her kiss will kill him. The Prince, accepting that fate, pleads for and receives her kisses and dies in her arms. The accursed Rusalka returns across the water, pausing to invoke God’s mercy on the prince’s human soul, and then sinks back into the lake to soft strings, muted brass and a final harp arpeggio. Breathtaking!
- Further performances through 21 March
- Metropolitan Opera