September 3, 2014
Antonin Dvorak’s dark 1901 fairy tale “Rusalka” entered Lyric Opera of Chicago’s repertoire Saturday night in one of the most powerful and involving productions of recent years with singers, conducting and orchestra as good as they get in this mournful Czech masterwork.
Having seen the astonishing Cleveland Orchestra production at the 2008 Salzburg Festival and the worn, rather dull and orchestrally overblown Metropolitan Opera revival in New York just two weeks ago, I was prepared for anything — as, I imagine, was most of the audience, seeing this late entry to the canon for the first time.
From the silent dumbshow on stage that carried into the overture, we knew that director David McVicar and designer John Macfarlane would be giving us a serious and stylish study of the characters in this story of a prince and a water nymph who enter into a doomed love affair.
And from the first sound from the orchestra pit under the direction of Lyric music director Andrew Davis, we could tell that this would be a performance that understood the odd, dotted rhythms of the Czech composition, its unusual, hypnotic sonorities floating somewhere between Bohemia and Bayreuth and the delicacy — and continuity — of so much of the writing. The three-act story with two full intermissions adds up to three hours and 40 minutes in the theater. From the focused audience to the lengthy ovations to the rare whooping from the cast behind the last dropped curtain, if anyone was unhappy about the length you could not tell.
Theater artist Jaroslav Kvapil created the libretto — drawn from several sources, on a water nymph who dreams of being and loving a human and the prince captivated by her — and shopped it around Prague to the younger generation of Czech composers. They were doing gritty, earth-bound “verismo,” so at the end of his rounds the writer tried Dvorak, famed and done with his great symphonies, chamber works and years in America. The fairy tale spoke to the older composer and he mined it for all it was worth, creating his most successful opera both at home and abroad just three years before his death at 62.
Listeners know the work’s so-called “greatest hit,” the “Song to the Moon,” in part from the most famed modern Rusalka, supersoprano Renee Fleming, herself half-Czech, for whom it has been a signature piece. But Davis, McVicar and the highly perceptive Puerto Rican-born soprano Ana Maria Martinez know that the opera is much more than this and that the “Song” is a part of the opera as a whole. It was daring to push the music through rather than pausing for a showy applause break after this lunar prayer for love, but the audience got it and stayed with the flow.
Making a role more than a “hit” is one challenge for a singer. The other is holding the stage as a character who, in exchange for becoming human, surrenders the power of speech (or song) in the presence of other humans. Martinez does much more than mime. In addition to her stunning yet naturalistic singing, she is balletic in her movements and psychology for her long silences. That she and her prince, American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, gave these roles together in Glyndebourne in 2009 clearly did not hurt. Their singing was both heroic and nuanced and their physical and musical pairing heartbreaking.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens expands his catalogue of water goblins after his celebrated Alberich in the Met’s “Ring” Cycle with Vodnik, Rusalka’s father. Davis and Lyric-debuting German costumer Moritz Junge have devised a look for Vodnik that is also a way of being, a kind of half-king, aware of his belonging to water and nature and the earth itself. In his first Czech work, Owens’ performance was wholly in the round, a preview of his debut as Wagner’s Wotan here down the line.
American mezzo Jill Grove has become Lyric’s go-to witch, and her Jezibaba has both the requisite humor and fearsomeness. Bass-baritone Philip Horst and mezzo Daniela Mack each have fine debuts in the comic supporting roles of Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy, and Ryan Center baritone Anthony Clark Evans is a woodsy huntsman. Debutantes Lauren Snouffer and Cynthia Hanna and Ryan mezzo J’nai Bridges are a seductive and game trio of Rusalka’s “sister” water nymphs..
Welsh choreographer Andrew George and debuting American lighting designer David Finn are longtime McVicar-Macfarlane associates and create twisted and dark counterparts to the rich Bohemian forest world of the set. And the act two palace kitchen scene is not only an excellent upstairs/downstairs commentary, but the wildest onstage cookery seen here since Macfarlane’s own beloved “Hansel and Gretel.”
Michael Black’s chorus and 10 dancers fill out the onstage action and danger. The producers, Martinez, Jovanovich, Owens, Davis and the orchestra take you to a place of indelible sadness that, in the nature of great art, is also rewarding.