Review: “Rusalka”

Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through March 13
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

More than a century after it first premiered in Prague, Lyric Opera of Chicago has at last brought “Rusalka” to the Civic Opera House. Dvorak’s greatest opera is both beautiful and thought-provoking with Lyric’s treatment of this 1901 work fresh and invigorating.

“Rusalka” is a dark and tragic fairy tale about love. The title water nymph yearns to be human, to experience love and to possess a soul. Her father Vodnik, a water goblin, cannot fathom such desire, but nonetheless sends her to the forest witch Jezibaba, who can effect such a transformation. Jezibaba’s ministrations do not come cheap: she tells Rusalka that becoming human will cost her the power of speech and, moreover, if she fails to find enduring love both she and her lover will face eternal damnation.

Resolute Rusalka accepts the terms. She’s made into a young woman and in the wood encounters the prince she has marveled over. He takes her back to his palace and prepares for their marriage.

But she is perplexed by him and his human ways while he finds her cold and insufficiently loving. A foreign princess observes all this and waits for the prince to grow weary of Rusalka. The prince, in his frustrations, turns to the princess and professes his love. Vodnik witnesses the prince’s betrayal and curses him while Rusalka returns to her idyllic lake only to find she cannot die nor rejoin her water sisters.

Jezibaba offers Rusalka a way to return to nature, but it requires that the water nymph kill the prince. She refuses, and must live through eternity as a will-o’-the-wisp who lures men to their deaths with her kiss. The prince realizes the error of his ways and returns to the forest in search of Rusalka. Their reunion is bittersweet as they recognize their previous brief happiness cannot be restored. The prince begs Rusalka to kiss him, knowing it will end his life and when she does so, he dies knowing that his sin has been redeemed. Rusalka asks for God’s mercy on her soul and then vanishes into the forest mists.

This is clearly the stuff of great opera and Dvorak’s romantic, lush, atmospheric music makes this fantastic journey a thrilling one. The outstanding performance of the opera at Lyric’s opening night was given by the orchestra. The single fault to be laid at the feet of conductor Sir Andrew Davis is that he leads his forces in such a way as to sometimes overpower the singers. But even then, the phosphorescent and beguiling orchestral score is so lustrous and glimmering that it barely matters. There is radiance in the strings, plush luxury from the winds and watery shimmers from the harp.

Director Sir David McVicar along with John MacFarlane (sets), Moritz Junge (costumes) and David Finn (lighting) have created a gorgeous and frightening fantasy world. Even before a note sounds, you enter the theater and see an enormous painting of a lake in dark forest, rendered in German Romantic style, and you are already placed in the fairy tale.

McVicar never forgets that the story is about love — its power, its mystery and its unpredictable and circuitous paths. But he adds a context which is both modern and eternal: the perils of human destruction of the natural world. Rusalka and the other supernatural characters represent nature and the prince represents mankind. His desire for Rusalka is honest, yet his actions destroy her.

The sets are evocative and engagingly propel the story forward. The forest is dark, beautiful, mysterious and scary. The kitchen (which was applauded as the curtain came up on Act II) is claustrophobic and bloody. The great hall, studded with dozens of mounted stag’s heads, vividly reminds us of how the prince treats the natural world.

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez is a memorable Rusalka; she is earnest and sings with passion. Martinez embraces the music with a voice that I found too dark, but this approach is generally applauded and the opening night audience loved it. Her interpretation of the title character is rather simple-minded: utterly childish in the first act and nearly mad in the last. This seems at odds with McVicar’s overarching idea, that nature and man are two elements of our world, each with their own power and dignity, so that Rusalka might be seen as fragile, but never a mere child nor some insane creature.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a great success as the prince, with a gleaming voice and intense passions. He vividly conveys the contradictions in his life, and his death is convincing portrayed with all its tragedy.

Eric Owens offers a powerful Vodnik, his bass-baritone well-suited to the grave music given to Rusalka’s father. Too bad he’s dressed like a Victorian money-lender who’s seen better days, rather than a formidable force of nature.

Jill Grove’s Jezibaba is both funny and frightening, and her rich and resonant mezzo-soprano never let the orchestra sideline her. She knows how to play for laughs, notably when she plops a tabby in her pot to create Rusalka’s transformation potion.

The foreign princess was sung to tremendous effect by Ekaterina Gubanova. This Russian mezzo combined with Jovanovich at the end of Act II for a dazzling duet that is enrapturing in its musicality and storytelling.

Philip Horst as the gamekeeper and Daniela Mack as the kitchen boy are splendid. The three wood nymphs (Lauren Snouffer, J’Nai Bridges and Cynthia Hanna) are the biggest victims of the orchestral volume, as they were often difficult to hear.
“Rusalka” is an experience not to be missed. It’s a force of nature.