By Lynne Gray, PhD
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Friday, July 31
Starring Kristine Opolais, Katarina Dalayman, Jamie Barton, Brandon Jovanovich, and Eric Owens, conducted by Mark Elder. From February 25, 2017.
For the Met’s second presentation of Rusalka (the first was from 2014 with Renée Fleming, Piotr Beczała and Dolora Zajick), we have a beautiful new production by Mary Zimmerman of this classic tale concerning the fate of a young water sprite who yearns to become human in order to find love.
The opera begins as a whimsical fairytale but quickly develops into a heartbreaking tragedy. Zimmerman’s sets (by Daniel Ostling) are at once beautiful and foreboding – a perfect way to enhance the dark complexities of this haunting fable. On the podium, Sir Mark Elder leads a stirring account of Dvořák’s score. Soprano Kristine Opolais (we’ve seen her as Manon in Manon Lescaut) gives a vocally lustrous and achingly vulnerable performance as Rusalka, the water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. Dashing tenor Brandon Jovanovich is that unworthy Prince, alongside bass Eric Owens as Rusalka’s father, the Water Gnome, Vodník, and Jamie Barton as the devilish sorceress Ježibaba.
A cornerstone of Czech opera, Dvořák’s dark and melodious take on this old Slavic myth entered the repertoire in 1901. In recent decades, it has become a staple for lyric sopranos, who particularly relish the title role’s spellbinding Song to the Moon in the first act—although may find their greatest challenge comes in the second act after Rusalka gives up her voice to become human (imagine doing that to a Diva!) – no singing, only acting, after the love-struck Rusalka has traded her voice to a witch for her human legs.
Antonín Dvořák was deeply concerned throughout his career with achieving a true representation of his Czech homeland in music. He made numerous attempts at writing opera, which he considered to be the greatest vessel for his musical nationalism. Of his 14 works for the operatic stage, however, only Rusalka, his next-to-last effort, has managed to find a place in the standard repertoire. It is a deeply original “lyric fairy tale,” that clearly transmits both the spirit of Dvořák’s native Bohemia and his own unique musical gifts. In addition, the opera provides us with a sage warning: If you have to transform yourself so drastically for the sake of love that you are literally at the point of losing your own voice, the relationship will most probably be disastrously doomed. That message comes through in almost every element of this haunting production, whose intensity coexists with a sense of impending doom.
The story of this opera should be familiar – it, like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, are both based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, as well as on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale – which itself was based on even older Slavic myths. In fact, the characters in the opera are referred to by their generic names from Slavic mythology: ‘Rusalka’ actually means water nymph, usually inhabiting a lake or river and ‘Vodník’ is a water sprite or gnome, while ‘Ježibaba’ is the standard name for a witch. The opera is far closer to the old myths than it is to Disney’s saccharin, happily-ever-after translation of The Little Mermaid – and so it is decidedly darker.
The water nymph, Rusalka, has seen a human Prince hunting around her lake and fallen hopelessly in love with him. She dreams of becoming human so that she can embrace him, but when she confides this to her father, Vodník, he tells her that such an idea is a terrible thing because all humans are evil and full of sin. Rusalka insists on believing they are full of love and when she persists, Vodník tells her he will not help her – she must go to the witch, Ježibaba. Rusalka sings her famous “Song to the Moon,” asking it to tell the Prince of her love and then goes off to see Ježibaba. Ježibaba reminds her that there must be consequences for such a transformative wish. By becoming mortal, Rusalka will lose her power of speech, and in addition, if she does not find love with the Prince, he will die and she will be eternally damned. Blinded by love, she naively accepts and drinks Ježibaba’s potion. Later, when he again comes upon her at the lake, the Prince is instantly captivated by her and even though she cannot speak, he takes her away with him to his castle.
The second act takes place at the Prince’s castle where we see that a gala wedding is being planned but there are already signs of trouble. The Prince is more and more disturbed by Rusalka’s inability to talk and therefore to express her love for him, and Rusalka is now feeling as trapped by her current surroundings as she once was by her forest-bound existence as a nymph. When a Foreign Princess arrives for the wedding and haughtily mocks Rusalka’s silence, the Prince begins lavishing his attentions on the Princess. He then cruelly dismisses Rusalka in the Princess’s presence. The distraught Rusalka runs to the garden and is visited there by Vodník who conveniently appears in a pool of water. The Water Sprite angrily warns the Prince of the fate that now awaits him, and mysteriously disappears back into the pool – this time, taking Rusalka along with him. The Princess in turn, rejects the Prince for his cruel inconstancy to another woman and tells him he should follow his bride to Hell – not exactly your typical fairytale exchange.
In the last act, Rusalka has returned to her world, lamenting her fate as an outcast and again seeking out Ježibaba for relief. Ježibaba hands her a knife and tells her that the only way to save herself now is to kill the Prince. Rusalka, who still loves him, refuses and throws the knife into the lake. To see the decidedly un-Disney-like ending when the Prince returns to the forest desperately searching for Rusalka, watch this beautifully done operatic fable – with its clear moral and the ultimate acceptance of their destinies by both the Prince and Rusalka.
1. Kristine Opolais in the title role of Dvořák’s “Rusalka” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.
2. Kristine Opolais in the title role of Dvořák’s “Rusalka” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.
3. Kristine Opolais in the title role and Eric Owens as the Water Sprite (Vodník) in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Met, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Jamie Barton as Ježibaba in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Met, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince, and Kristine Opolais in the title role of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Met, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
6. Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess, Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince and Kristine Opolais as Rusalka in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Met, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
7. Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince and Kristine Opolais in the title role of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Met, 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.