By James L Paulk
NEW YORK — Spooky! Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, which opened Feb. 3 at the Metropolitan Opera with a stellar cast, is a surreal take on traditional productions of the opera. If capricious and confusing, it’s also beautiful and intriguing.
The libretto, by Jaroslav Kvapil, draws from several sources including Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.“ Rusalka, a water nymph, falls in love with a prince she’s seen at the lake and begs to be transformed into a human. Her father Vodník, the Water Gnome, warns her that humans are evil creatures, full of sin. Undeterred, she goes to a witch, Ježibaba, who makes the switch with a few caveats: Rusalka must sacrifice her voice and become mute; and if she fails to find love, she’ll be eternally damned and her lover will die. Things don’t go well. The Prince deserts her for a Foreign Princess. The Prince eventually returns, begging forgiveness, but it’s too late. Rusalka kisses him, and both sink beneath the water to their death.
When Peter Gelb took over as the Met’s general manager a decade ago, he set out to shake up the company’s rather frumpy production style, a prime example of which was Otto Schenk’s Rusalka, which the company had obtained from the Vienna State Opera when it presented the opera for the first time in 1993, 92 years after its premiere. Like most of his work, Schenk’s production was attractive, safe, and a bit kitschy.
[Rusalka continues through March 2 at the Met. It will be broadcast live on radio and on cinema screens worldwide Saturday, Feb. 25, with encore screenings March 1 in the U.S. and April 8, 10 and 12 in Canada. Check here for details.]
Gelb brought in new directors, especially Broadway veterans like Zimmerman. Her three efforts prior to Rusalka were daring and controversial, though none was a resounding success, so there was considerable interest in how she would approach this latest venture. As a rarity and a recent arrival at the Met, Rusalka isn’t freighted with the same baggage as warhorse operas. And as a fairy-tale, it lends itself more easily to an open, imaginative approach – abstract, metaphorical – than more earthbound works. Recent European productions have explored the darker edges suggested in the text, especially misogyny, violence, and environmental destruction.
Zimmerman has instead delivered a twisted hybrid bordering on parody of traditional productions like Schenk’s, which it sometimes resembles. The first act usually transpires in and around a lake inhabited by magic watery creatures. Zimmerman places it instead in a forest (projected on stage walls) with an ancient, gnarled tree mounted on a rocky hill. A tiny pit functions as the lake. Not a drop of water is in sight.
For the second act, we travel to the Prince’s court, whose walls feature elegant painted wallpaper and sconces – all bathed in blood-like red lighting. A giant stack of antlers hammers home the hunter vs. prey theme. The final act returns us to the forest, but this time the forest has been transformed into a bleak, ruined landscape, peeling from the stage scaffolding, now exposed à la Bertolt Brecht.
Meanwhile, the staging is a jumble of quirky gestures, some of which work quite well on their own. But without any cohesive theme, the overall effect is vague confusion and a sense of awkwardness. Rusalka moves around jerkily, stumbling and darting her eyes, suggesting her insecurity and discomfort first in the forest and then in the palace. Ježibaba transforms Rusalka into a human in a crude surgical suite assisted by cartoonish animal creatures. In the palace, the dance of the courtiers, usually a long, boring scene, here becomes a riveting, witty caricature, with the dancers in absurd costumes and herky-jerky choreography by Austin McCormick, making his Met debut. At the final embrace, the Prince drops dead, but Rusalka staggers off alive.
Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais sang the title role with matchless intensity. The voice isn’t huge and there were some tentative moments. But she has a lustrous tone, her phrasing is intelligent, and her top notes are everything you could want. Her “Song to the Moon” was a ravishing delight. Opolais is the consummate singing actress, with a powerful stage presence, persuasive even in the long palace passages when her character is mute.
The role of the Prince went to Brandon Jovanovich, whose giant tenor voice has nice dark colors. His sensitive portrayal unfolded as a melding of the Prince’s genuine charm and love for Rusalka with his arrogance and cruelty. His chemistry with Opolais was palpable and helped overcome the occasional muddle of the production. The estimable bass-baritone Eric Owens portrayed Vodník with his usual power and fine legato. Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman’s Foreign Princess was over-loud and imperious, lacking any subtlety — which, in fairness, worked for her character.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was mesmerizing as Ježibaba, throwing herself physically into the role and singing with matchless power and control. Costumed as a Victorian granny, she was required to perform the role with a toothy sneering grin, exaggerated by her goth-like dark lipstick, but nothing deterred her. She has become one of the great treasures of our era.
Mark Elder’s conducting proceeded at a lethargic pace, but he managed to pack some punch by accentuating the dynamic shifts. The orchestra responded with its usual polish, and Dvořák’s score, the other star of the evening, shimmered and shone.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.