By Nancy Malitz
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first-ever presentation of Antonín Dvořák’s late masterpiece Rusalka was greeted like a long-lost relative by the audience on Feb. 22. A fairy tale tinged with seductive pastoral beauty and psychological horror, Rusalka has a heroine who longs to transcend for love, a jealous rival, witchcraft, and a spellbinding love-death worthy of Tristan und Isolde. The opera may not yet be widely familiar, but it did seem familial. Almost as soon as Lyric music director Andrew Davis began conducting, you could feel the audience settling in.
Rusalka came quickly to Dvořák in 1900. He wrote it in a seven-month streak at the peak of his powers. It was his ninth opera of ten, and it carries all the structural majesty and theatrical impact of his late symphonic works. The music is Dvořák’s own, but it drinks deeply from the cosmopolitan well of Verdi, Wagner, Smetana, and earlier composers whose music Dvořák encountered while playing viola in the opera pits of Prague.
The Czech language barrier has taken a long century to overcome. But on the audience side, at least, surtitles are now routine, and there is absolutely no problem with understanding the music. Renée Fleming has turned the saga of the water nymph who yearns to experience human love into a signature role at the Met and elsewhere, and now there is a new generation of opera singers who are ratcheting up their Czech. For that, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez and American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who star at the Lyric, can claim some credit.
Mesmerizing together onstage, Martínez and Jovanovich first played the ephemeral water spirit and the human prince to whom she is irresistibly drawn in 2009 at Glyndebourne, where a performance was recorded live. The number of new Rusalka’s has mushroomed since then. Nine new productions in major opera cities such as Vienna, St. Petersburg, Monte Carlo, Nuremberg, and Frankfurt were scheduled this season and last. And that’s on top of nine revivals of recent productions in places like Zurich and Berlin.
Martínez and Jovanovich are likely to be at the center of the Rusalka upswing. Her voice is impressive at the top, yet capable of elusive, dusky colorings throughout, and she has an edge when she needs it. Her singing of Rusalka’s despondent aria at the top of Act III (“Necitelná vodní moci”) was delicately done, aching with sadness, a counterpart to Desdemona’s “Willow Song,” and offered one of the many reasons why this opera needs to be better known. Jovanovich looks great, has the sound of a heldentenor in him, and does some of his best acting through the highly expressive singing itself. The final duet for Rusalka and the Prince (“Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš?”) — in which Rusalka seals the prince’s death with a kiss – was tenderly layered and touching in its refinement.
The Lyric’s new production, directed by David McVicar with designs of John Macfarlane, largely preserves the soaring magic and longing of its fairy tale origin, which is a darker version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Conductor Davis found wonderful things already in the opening bars of the score. From the first uneasy forest murmurs and ravishing watery images, it was clear the music would offer the luxury of great sweep and the impact of psychological precision. The orchestra achieved admirable transparency, with Davis inspiring delight after delight, whether Dvořák was channeling Das Rheingold or painting with Bohemian color.
But McVicar’s idea was to launch the story during the orchestral prelude from the viewpoint of the bored Prince, rather than the mysterious Rusalka, whose music is playing. Jovanovich stumbles into a side room of his palace, fleeing a public occasion of some sort, perhaps the second act palace ball we will later witness. He is drunk, disgusted, uneasy on his feet, obviously hating every aspect of his life at the moment. He violently rejects the female guest who pursues him, powders his drink with a hallucinogen, and turns his gaze instead to a giant landscape painting that symbolizes the Elsewhere he would so desperately rather be. (Or is it the Elsewhere that led him astray?)
Thus it is the prince’s torment, rather than the lovely nymph’s desire, that charges the story at its onset. The intriguing concept perhaps helps to explain the prince’s wild and fickle behavior. But it was just too soon for this, and it added up to an elaborate, even noisy, distraction quite at odds with the supernatural rumblings of Dvořák’s eery first music. The show was off on a tangent almost before it started.
That said, the opera’s three main settings work very well. Rusalka’s dream-like waterside realm is a downstage lateral expanse, with the roots of an ancient tree providing a languid perch for the extraordinarily lithe and balletic Martínez to sing her heart out. In the nocturnal iridescence that bathes the stage as Rusalka confesses her “Song to the Moon,” the effect is enchanting. Behind her, however, is a thick grove of trees that are often on the move, as if aware, in a nature that is not at all simple and romantic, but rather profound, unknowable, and probably angry. The encroachment of man is apparent in the tall concrete walls, perhaps the sides of a dam. The witch Ježibaba, who’s nasty just for the heck of it, has overtaken its crannies and iron ladder rungs for havoc-wreaking. (Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove , who also sang the witch in Lyric’s 2012 Hansel and Gretel, is a world-champion sorceress, good with crows, bad for cats.)
The other two sets are very Downstairs, Upstairs, opposite in purpose, yet equally wonderful. One’s the hilarious kitchen, with a spitting fire pit, massive chopping block, and super-sized sides of beef dangling overhead. There’s also a ceiling air vent, which must be great for that essential chore, the gathering of gossip. It’s here that Philip Horst , as the Gamekeeper, and Daniela Mack, in the trouser role of the kitchen boy, exchanged their priceless lowdown on the Prince’s waffling over the mute strangeness of his intended wife, while the boy blithely stuffed onions inside a giant, raw, floppy-necked swan.
The upstairs set, of the palace’s great hall, ironically conveys the strange prison in which Rusalka, now human but unable to speak, finds herself. The sight of Martínez, her hands pressed against the window pane, staring out at the nature she abandoned, her face contorted into a silent scream, was a brilliant and profoundly moving example of the way that the music, the acting, the staging, and the setting all worked together for strategic impact.
Moritz Junge’s costumes for the nymphs and forest creatures were a bit over-the-top in their grungy decadence. Eric Owens , as the water goblin Vodnik (Rusalka’s father), looked weak in tattered tails that resembled leftovers from a last-century New Year’s party at Tim Burton’s, but he overcame it in his usual way, by singing masterfully. And the three sparkling-voiced wood nymphs (Lauren Snouffer, J’nai Bridges , and Cynthia Hanna, who remind one so much of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens, outclassed their grimy aspect. Junge’s choices for Rusalka were spot on. Martínez really did seem like part water in the opening act (hauntingly lit by David Finn). At the palace, she was regally corseted, overwhelmed on the dance floor, and dwarfed by the taxidermy on display – the picture of a creature hopelessly out of place.
The tug of wills at the palace, where the mute Rusalka’s strangeness has pushed the impatient Prince to the point of rage, projected the terrific electricity that makes Martínez and Jovanovich so good together onstage. And the formidable Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, in her Lyric Opera debut, gave the Foreign Princess an insidiousness worthy of Verdi’s Eboli, a role she also sings. No wonder the Prince felt the forest a better option.
The Lyric Opera production continues through March 16.
[Beginning April 15, Martínez and Jovanovich will do their first Carmen together, at the Houston Grand Opera, with Martínez in the title role. It’s not unheard of for a soprano to sing Carmen, as did Emma Calvé famously and Geraldine Ferrar, but since Martínez made her Met debut as Micaëla as recently in 2005, there is likely to be considerable interest.]
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.