David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
The Met's New-Generation 'Rusalka' Meets the Current Mermaid Zeitgeist
Friday, February 03, 2017 - 10:57 AM
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Dvořák's Rusalka had some significant odds to overcome at its Thursday opening. The cast represents a new generation of Rusalka-ites headed by Kristine Opolais and inviting inevitable comparisons to Renee Fleming in the title role (and in her best years). The opera itself has some of the composer's best music attached to a fairy tale of a water sprite-turned-human that is far out of step with the current mermaid zeitgeist, if one is to judge from the man-munching creatures in the new movie musical The Lure.
The ever-innovative, hyper-alert director Mary Zimmerman assured us that we would feel something other than pity for the title character, who falls in love with a fickle prince, turns her back on her watery peeps and discovers that she can't function in the real world of people. Ultimately, she grants her prince a kiss when he begs hard enough, knowing that would kill him. It's a rich, ambiguous ending.
The entire package was attractive enough — with some discrete cuts — to assure that the opera's burgeoning popularity over the past 30 years is likely to continue. But while many Met goers have booed Zimmerman for her high-concept productions of Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, her Rusalka portrayed the title character's Act I transformation into a human being as something performed on a surgical table, in ways that suggested a gender reassignment. (Actually, the change is more fundamental than that because Rusalka acquires a soul).
She graduates form the terrarium-like setting (designed by Daniel Ostling) to a wide-open field surrounded by one-dimensional trees — perhaps her view of above-ground nature — but finds herself in a garish, aristocratic ballroom in Act II with people who are colder than her skin temperature. Abrupt lighting shifts showed how Rusalka also exists in a parallel dimension. Less fortunately, she attempts to revert to her previous self in an Act III amid something resembling submerged war ruins. It was hard to find a unifying viewpoint there. This is the first time in my multi-decade career of Zimmerman watching that I've wanted to tune out the production.
On the musical front, there was plenty to delve into. Though beloved in many quarters, I fear that Opolais may suffering the Marina Poplavskaya syndrome — a wonderful singer who was great in the smaller houses of Europe but unduly strained her voice at the larger Met. Opolais's lyrical moments reflect a keen vocal intelligence and imaginative theatricality, but which turns muddy when under dramatic pressure. You always know what she's trying to put across, but it requires some extrapolating.
Tenor Brandon Jovanovich seemed well served by the last syllable of his name: Nobody sang the language with his ease and authority, and his lyrical, Lohengrin-weight voice was mostly a pleasure to hear, as long as you didn't miss the more Siegfriedian touches of Ben Heppner. As the crusty witch Jezibaba, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton dug into her lower range with some dramatically appropriate guttural effects, but more than her predecessor Dolora Zajick, maintained grace and musicality no matter how nasty her sentiments. Katarina Dalayman wasn't so lucky as Rusalka's rival, but it's a thankless role. After L'Amour de Loin, Eric Owens is back in good form as Rusalka's father, his warmth of tone reminding you how much love there is behind the character's disappointment over his wayward daughter.
Often, the HD simulcast minimizes the visual quirks of any given production and accentuates the positive. It'll be fascinating to see what miracles are possible with this one.