Met’s new Rusalka sparkles

They say an idle brain is the Devil’s playground, but an open mind is an at-risk vulnerable state as well. We at the Met have, over the past decade, witnessed director Mary Zimmerman’s takes on operas that range from the intermittently distracting (e.g., the Sextet in Lucia di Lammermoor) to cloyingly cute (Armida) to the downright ridiculous, actually dramatically destructive (La Sonnambula). Imagine then the sheer dread one felt following the announcement that she, of all people, was directing a new production of Rusalka, one which would replace the magical Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen creation for the opera’s premiere at the Met in 1993. Where’s that grimacing emoticon when you really need one?

But risking it, keeping the open mind, as I always do, I happily found Zimmerman’s new Rusalka both charming and delightful (importantly, mostly when Dvořák’s music is meant to be charming and delightful), but also quite moving and sad, which, au fond, the story really is.

It’s a package deal here: the success of this Rusalka is the cast, the conducting and playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the new production itself. Maybe the nice evening helped too.

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon

Rusalka is a star vehicle for soprano Kristine Opolais, who brings to the title role her cool beauty and ravishing voice, combined with a keen dramatic instinct. Rusalka’s conflicting desires, evidenced in her inability to connect emotionally with the Prince, are played out unambiguously well in Act II. Plus, duh! can’t she even see the colors of her gown are, like, all wrong!?

The downhill tumble of her relationship with the Prince is not helped by the distracting intrusion of the Foreign Princess, whose heat is more alluring than Rusalka’s chill. Katarina Dalayman is brash, bold and hot, all the more captivating just now because alas poor Rusalka has traded her voice for her new earthly needs, a pair of legs, to name one of them. The Prince just knows her as ‘quiet.’

Brandon Jovanovich is the Prince

Brandon Jovanovich is the Prince

As the Prince, tenor Brandon Jovanovich was impressive, winning both in voice and virility. The music says he must ardently take his Rusalka in his arms, which he does, sweeping her off her feet. But though he is confused by Rusalka’s reticence, he is ultimately unsure of the Princess’s excesses and opts to follow his true love all the way to Act III, where, by the lakeside, he gladly gives himself to death in her arms. Jovanovich sings with heartfelt sincerity.

Eric Owens is Vodník, Rusalka’s father and a Water Gnome to boot. By Zimmerman’s direction, Owens’ character is maybe too much the mix of a fairy tale Alberich sort who plays with the Wood Sprites and the warm protective father figure who most of the time sighs for Rusalka’s unfortunate choices. Owens is always pleasing vocally.

Jamie Barton as   Ježibaba and her assistant

Jamie Barton as Ježibaba and her assistant

But then Jamie Barton is delightfully over-the-top as Ježibaba, the local witch hanging out in the woods. Mesmerizingly so, actually. That Barton’s rich mezzo/contralto voice is impressive is a well known fact by this time, but that she moves with a strong grace, communicates her thoughts and intentions with telling body language, particularly with her facial expressions and her hands…watch her hands…are all wonderful as well. Until Act III that is: Dvořák’s Rusalka is a finely tuned fairy tale, mixing fun for the young and sadness, loss and regret for those us adulterated elders who’ve been there, done that. Barton’s Ježibaba gets mean, demanding the Prince’s death…Nonetheless, I found myself smiling every moment Barton was on stage. Brava!!

Here in Zimmerman’s conception, far more so than in the previous production of Rusalka, the lighter elements of the story are played closer to the top of the pole: the three Wood Sprites, pleasingly sung by Hyesang Park, Megan Marino, and Cassandra Zoé Velasco, are joined by a whole troupe of Sprites, making for a lot of hopping and dancing. Alan Opie’s Gamekeeper is a crusty sort of comic character and Daniela Mack’s Kitchen Boy is a wonderful vignette, apple and all. Anthony Clark Evans is the Hunter who announces the Prince’s arrival in the forest in Act I.

Sir Mark Elder’s read of Dvořák’s rich score brought out the depth of Rusalka’s love and pain, but allowed for the lighter moments to sparkle. It is remarkable music, to be sure, and the Met Orchestra plays it so well.

Eric Owens as Vodnik appears to his daughter Rusalka at the Prince's fete

Eric Owens as Vodnik appears to his daughter Rusalka at the Prince's fete

An equally large part of the success of this new Rusalka is the mise-en-scène: sets by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting by T. J. Gerckens, all three who, at the Met, designed for Zimmerman’s Lucia and Sonnambula. Unlike the Schneider-Siemssen Rusalka, the sets this time around are not strictly literal, but rather suggestive. Yet they convey each setting colorfully and emotionally. The forest scene is a comforting lush leafy green, Rusalka’s tree is there in the center, the Sprites dance about, Vodník emerges from below the river; a very large moon traverses the sky during the famous Song to the Moon, though Rusalka’s long costume “tail” seems a real nuisance for Opolais, hence distracting for the audience…but basically all is good. Ježibaba has assistants: a balletic mouse escaped from The Nutcracker probably, a black cat (of course) and a crow and a whole cabinet of spells and potions to transform Rusalka. It’s pretty silly, but played well. I liked the stage with yellow petals strewn about, the meadow in which the Prince first professes his love for his strange river creature. The second act is brilliantly red in décor and costumes, in contrast to Rusalka’s silver blue gown, and the ball, choreographed by Austin McCormick, worked very well. Forgot to mention that of course Rusalka can’t dance: she’s just learned to walk, for goodness sake! For Act III, the gentle woods have been hit by rough weather, foreshadowing the rough emotional weather we’re about to endure in the total collapse of Rusalka’s plans for happiness with humans.

The Met’s new Rusalka is a don’t-miss-this experience: open mind, remember.

It’s also one of the great operas in the repertory, certainly very high on my list. I’ve loved it forever.

Just a thought: am I wrong in suspecting that Mary Zimmerman is on the Met’s short list to direct the Company’s premiere of Janáček’s Příihody Lisky Bystroušky? (The Tale of Vixen Sharp-ears) (aka auf Deutsch Das schlaue Füchslein (thank you, Max!); in English The Cunning Little Vixen). Assuming, of course, the Met wants to patch that hole in their repertory…

Reviewed performance: February 6, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard

Enjoy! Trip home listening to Dvořák’s four Symphonic Poems, opus sequentially from Water Goblin, Golden Spinning Wheel, Noon Witch, and Wood Dove, these last two personal favorites. I would have added the New World Symphony, but maybe tomorrow. A cat must snooze sometime. Still, doesn’t get better than these!

Brave the coming storm; we're closer to the summer solstice and the shore every day!