Metropolitan Opera 2016-17 Review – Rusalka: Mary Zimmerman, Kristine Opolais & Company Take Us On Dramatically Rich Journey To Find Operatic Identity

By David Salazar

We acknowledge that OperaWire is late to the “Rusalka” party, but here is our review for the performance on Feb. 17, 2017, the fifth performance of this run.

Antonín Dvorák’s “Rusalka” is the epitome of a metaphorical operatic identity crisis.

The opera, which is a grim version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” follows the story of a water nymph who desires to be a human so she can feel love and passion for a handsome prince. She is granted said wish but at the cost of her voice, the ultimate source of identity in the opera world. The silent nymph is then repudiated in the human world for this very lack of expression (much as some critics incessantly abuse opera singers for lacking the voice THEY expect), the relationship with the love of her life quickly falling to shreds when he meets with a far more passionate princess.

That’s just the general plot itself. The music also has a schizoid feel to it with Dvorak jumping constantly from profound Wagnerian drama to far “simpler” music that lives and breathes Czech folksong. The tone of the work is constantly in flux as well with the nymphs and a few of the Prince’s servants offering up comedic moments throughout the work’s three acts. And finally the famed Ježibaba herself is a mix of the perverted and fun in each and all of us.

And just on a fun sidenote, it is easy to forget that Dvorák himself struggled with identity as a composer, his own countrymen seeing him as a musical outsider for how his style was influenced by foreign composers and countries. This theme works on more levels than you can possibly imagine.

A Production Brilliantly Stuck in Different Worlds

Most directors in the operatic world seem to play more towards the opera’s darker tone, which certainly grows and grows as the work unravels.

But Mary Zimmerman, in undeniably the best work she has done on the Met stage, latches onto the sense of “meta” identity crisis in her production. The work’s opening act reimagines the famed Otto Schenk production, a massive tree dominating the space on stage right. The moment the curtain opens, the first impression from any audience member who adored said production would probably be “This is a plagiarized set. What is the point?” I had this reaction and was constantly wondering why the glorious Schenk fairytale world had been discarded for a minimalist reinterpretation that seemed overly indebted to its predecessor.

But that’s just the point. By introducing us to something we know so well, Zimmerman now has control over where we direct our attention, how we interact with it and how we ultimately feel about it. She is drawing comparisons to the previous work because she is aware of how embedded in the Met public’s collective conscience it is.

The biggest point of comparison however feeds into her thematic development. Schenk’s production was splendid in its detail and fantastical realism. Zimmerman is blatantly minimalist, to the point that aside from the tree, the rest of the stage is bare. The minimalism grows and grows throughout this act, the curtain coming down for the Ježibaba scene with a few rodents bringing on some lab equipment to fill out the stage. By scene three, the stage is completely bare with flowers looming upstage with the iconic tree tiny and an afterthought.

Act two, which might be the best thing Zimmerman has ever directed at the Met, starts off with a minimalist bent, the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy hanging out in a green corridor. The “wall” eventually comes up revealing a massive red salon that is the epitome of a traditional production. If detail and flourish is what you desire in your opera production, then this act is awash with it. The walls have some drawings of nature (another visual motif littered throughout the production) but the images are faded and dominated by the fiery color of the room. The wardrobes are elaborate. It’s a nostalgic set in many ways.

But as much as we revel in its artistic beauty, the action in this scene is rather distancing, emphasizing the sense of exclusion as Rusalka is constantly portrayed as an outsider. As a dance breaks out, she is left on the margins up against the wall. The confrontation between Rusalka, the Prince and Princess is staged like a triangle with Rusalka on one side of the stage, the Princess set up on the opposite end and the Prince constantly running from one side to the other.

When the Water Gnome makes his appearance, the lighting, which was dominated by red, suddenly shifts to green, the fantastical realm of nature seizing control. The shift in color scheme is rather pronounced, expressing this fracture in Rusalka’s identity.

The red and green color scheme is a visual motif that Zimmerman plays off heavily throughout the first two acts, from the sets themselves to even the wardrobe. The forest is illuminated by Green while Ježibaba’s world is filled with the more hostile red. The Prince’s servants, the Prince and the Princess all wear red to symbolize the hostile human realm while the Nymphs’ costumes are a more pleasant green. Rusalka’s first costume, with its massive and burdensome tail is also filled with green. When she becomes human, she wears a white dress, a literal clean slate. But it is Act 2 where her color is most poignant. In a production where red and green are the dominant colors on the RGB spectrum and blue is by extension the outlier, it is most fitting that Rusalka would of course be dressed in this very color, albeit a pale rendition of it. Her costumes are stuffy and overbearing and at one point we see her get stripped down and then dressed by others. This is callback to the tail she skirts around in during Act 1, driving home the point Rusalka is not at home in either skin she is forced to wear.

Ježibaba’s costume is grey and black, the witch a part of a decadent world in between the color of human and spirits. So it is no surprise that when Rusalka returns to the forest for Act 3 the opening curtain rises to reveal neither a green nor a red world, but a dead one dominated by grey. The iconic tree from the opening act is destroyed and the rest of the forest looks like it has been nuked. It is neither overly minimalist or elaborate, but stuck somewhere in between stylistically. The world, sapped of its color, emphasizes that Rusalka belongs neither to the world of the spirits or humans, but a far more painful realm – purgatory. And it is no surprise that the protagonist’s actions in this scene are not dominated by either her own desires or those of the human realm (which we see in Act 1 and 2 respectively), but by the witch herself.

The moon, which we see rise with wonder in the opening act during Rusalka’s famous “Moon Song,” is fallen and opposite the destroyed tree. In the evening’s final image, Rusalka, dressed like a wanderer, walks in front of this moon, the backlight turning her into a shadow, her tragic loss of sense complete.

Yes, Zimmerman’s production has some brilliant ideas and executes emotionally and viscerally across the way.

And she had the right cast to bring those ideas to the fore.

 A Soprano In Control of Two Artistic Worlds

Kristine Opolais is a magnetic singing actress, her commitment and passion always a hallmark of her performances. Her Rusalka was no different. As she came onstage for the first time on the night, her movement, slowly and steady, emphasizing Rusalka’s sense of discomfort in her world. The Latvian soprano’s movement throughout this scene in particular were minimal, the actress remaining rooted to the tree to emphasize the lack of freedom Rusalka felt. The movements, when employed, generally revolved around moving that massive tail, reminding the viewer of how burdensome her current state was.

A sense of emotional frailty was illuminated by her singing in the opening act, Opolais’ voice on the more subdued side, the tone slender and lighter. This allowed for a gentle take on the famed “Song to the Moon,” the phrasing emphasizing the musical peaks and valleys, the audience constantly getting a sense of vocal momentum until she finally unleashed a hint of her potency at the massive climax.

She retained this more relaxed tone throughout the scene with Ježibaba, but we could sense a grown sense of vocal power and intensity as the scene wore on, her movements, so minimal in the opening scene, more frayed and discomforted. The shaking of the tail, the main visual reference to her identity, was pushed about with greater chaos, not only by Rusalka herself, but by Ježibaba’s animal minions. When we finally see her at the end of the act without the tail, her movement was full of freedom. But that opening scene with the Prince showed us that Opolais‘ Rusalka could not find instant happiness from being a human. Stepping into a new identity comes with its own emotional trauma, a very real fear of stepping into the unknown. She cowered from the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich), running from him until eventually he took control over, picking her up off the ground before she could run from him. Aside from being a visceral moment to witness onstage, it also played rather beautifully on a deeper level, Opolais‘ Rusalka being in control of others, her lack of identity taking away her ability to make a choice, something that she would struggle with for the balance of the opera.

Act 2 presents a major challenge for any Rusalka. She spends most of the time onstage, her only singing lasting less than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes are potential pitfall, Dvorák demanding that Rusalka brave a tempestuous orchestra and propulsive musical statement. She has to throw her voice into the upper register, her desperation and sense of confusion at the core of the dramatic thrust. In this passage, Opolais was splendid, her sound delivering a coarser but viscerally pointed quality that provided a counterpoint to the greater vocal comfort she displayed during the “Song to the Moon.”

And while the singing in this act is challenging, the best Rusalka’s keep us dramatically invested through their acting, arguably Opolais’ greatest asset. Her first appearance saw her dash across the stage and her initial interactions with the Prince saw her constantly evading his glance and escaping from him. This in turn forced Jovanovich to become brusque with her, the interactions growing in their hostility as he moved toward raping her. Opolais’ fought as best as she could throughout this initial exchange, the danger dawning on the audience until the Princess interrupted the scene. From there, Opolais played the perfect counterpoint to Katarina Dalayman’s imposing princess. Where the Swedish Soprano threw her massive voice about with abandon and luxurious sound, her arms out and open as she soaked in the space in her larger-than-life dress, the Latvian soprano hunched over, her arms glued to her side, her stare constantly toward the floor. A few moments later she was clinging to the walls as a dance broke out about her. And when the Water Gnome made his great appearance, she could not bear his reproach and stormed out of the room as fast she could.

Act 3 was the one in which she brought her brilliant vocal and acting abilities together into a emotionally potent whole. Her confrontation with Ježibaba saw her cower before the witch at one point, her pleading voice filled with rapid and wider vibrato, the phrasing more accented, the slender and polish of her Act 1 singing a distant memory. Her final scene with the Prince was marked by her steady physical presence, Rusalka literally frozen in place as she faced her destiny. We saw Rusalka feel imprisoned and out of place in the first two acts, but it was in this moment where Opolais made us feel that the character was truly paralyzed. Her voice also regained its lyrical delicacy, Rusalka’s compassion for her fallen lover apparent. Once she has effectively killed him, Opolais stood up over his fallen body. In a visceral display of pain, she jerked herself in one direction and then another, the sense of displacement real as she struggled to figure out her compass from this point forward. The final phrases, in which Rusalka prays for the Prince’s soul, were sung with the full resources of Opolais’ soprano, a sense of defeat apparent. But on account of this performance, there is no doubt that Opolais was a triumph as Rusalka.

Youthful Ebulence, Domestic Abuse & A Great Fall

The same can be said for Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince. He flubbed the climactic high C in the final scene (“Mír mi prej”) but that was the lone moment in the entire opera where you could hold anything against him. His dark tenor soared throughout the entire evening, the flowing sound imbuing the Prince with youthful energy. His physicality, as noted, added to this element. Aside from carrying Opolais across the stage a few times, he was agile in his chasing about her. This excitement turned to frustration in the second act, his movement more staggered and weightier as he presented a menace to Rusalka. Where he was crude and rough with her, throwing her to the ground at one point, he was suave and sensual with the Princess, wrapping his arms around her to feel her out. His voice took on a silkier tone in those scenes as well, showing him in a slightly slivery light, our sympathy for him lessening and being transferred back to the victimized Rusalka.

But in the final Act, his fate sealed, Jovanovich portrayed his frayed sense of self poignantly. His initial movements were broken, the Prince unable to stand up straight and then spending the remainder of the act on the floor. His fall from grace was complete. His singing here was impassioned, the voice powerful, providing an vocal contrast with Opolais’ more delicate timbre, but also challenging it. We could sense her voice growing in intensity as his did as well, the climax finally matching them emotionally, the only time they would get that opportunity. As he lay dying at her feat, Jovanovich’s voice relinquished its weight, his mezza voce rising and falling with angelic perfection, the sense of weakness coming over him until his final noted faded into nothingness.

Different Shades of Gray

Now let’s talk about Jamie Barton, who was electric as Ježibaba. Her take on the character was a “Satan-lite,” if you will, the character a fun-loving yet conniving villain. Her main interactions in the opera are with the tragic heroine, the witch getting to control the dynamics of the scenes throughout. Barton relished these moments, letting her gigantic instrument run wild throughout the massive halls of the Met. Her diction was delicious as she twisted every consonant or set of mixed consonants to fill out the portrait of a seemingly evil character that was simply having a ton of fun. Her phrasing had an aggressive quality, especially as she preyed on Rusalka to sign the contract, a literally selling of the soul to the devil. Her demeanor was darker in the final act, the sound more lethal in its accented brutality (though no less beautiful to listen to) and her glare dangerous.

In an opera full of contrasts, Eric Owens‘ Water Gnome was the light gray to Barton’s dark gray. While we never get any sense of Ježibaba’s weakness in the entire opera, Zimmerman ensures that we see the Water Gnome’s right up front. As she chased the other nymphs, he climbed out of his lake and jumped about on water lilies. But when those were taken from him, he stood on a literal island on his own, his only option to roll back into the lake, to the amusement of the audience. In the second act, his entrance into the great hall of the Prince’s palace saw him weaken, Rusalka running to his aid with a bowl of water. Owens’ singing matched this sense of weakness, the bass delivering polished singing with a soothing timbre. There were moments where he could turn up the heat vocally, his sound taking on a cruder sound that expressed his rage and discontent, but even in his famous Act 2 aria, he fed us the Gnome’s with tender compassion and love for Rusalka instead of disappointment.

Rarely is there a need to mention the Gamekeeper or Kitchen Boy, the parts so slight, but in this case Alan Opie and Daniela Mack were the definition of a dynamic duo, their opening exchange in Act 2 impossible to look away. They drew the viewer in as they moved from stage right to left, the power dynamics constantly shifting from one to the other, their displeasure with Rusalka growing in their exchange. Their final appearance in Act 3 was delightful for their exaggerated fear, which provided a tonal shift from the darker feel of this scene, a reminder of this opera’s identity crisis.

Contrasts in the Pit

Perhaps the player with the least sense of definition on the evening was conductor Sir Mark Edler. Elegant in portraying the tonal shifts throughout Dvorák’s leitmotif laden prelude, Edler never seemed at ease in leading his singers through their musical solos. He was constantly rushing ahead of Opolais throughout the “Song to the Moon” and likewise pushed Jovanovich in his Act 1 aria and the final scene. At other moments he pushed the orchestral sound so much that he covered the soloists, who already had the massive challenge of seeing the massive opening set bury their sound. The horns also seemed to be ill-at-ease with his handling of them in more exposed passages, the phrasing a bit muddled. Edler and the orchestra did seem more at ease with the dance-like musical moments, those running at steady pace that gave the work’s lighter musical sections vibrancy and richness. And he was splendid in the opera’s closing moments, the march-like passage that precludes Rusalka’s final phrases taking on a somber and weightier feel that revealed the tragic dimensions of the heroine’s situation in a manner that mirrored Opolais’ own sense of revelation.

A Takeaway

In taking on a new production of “Rusalka,” the Met has demonstrated some conservative risk-taking. Shifting away from a fan-favorite production is no easy enterprise, as shown by the company’s decision to move from a modern “Tosca” back to a more traditional one. But Zimmerman’s take, alongside a fascinating cast headlined by the always passionate Kristine Opolais, has proven that some risks can actually bear beautiful fruit. It isn’t always perfect, but through a ruptured sense of self inherent in the opera, Zimmerman reminds us that a failure to embrace an identity can lead to a lack of one that leaves us floating in nothingness. Isn’t that what great art is for?


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