Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was a musical revolutionary. One of a handful of maverick European composers who ushered in the 20th Century with a distinctly modern orchestral style, Dvořák is not the first composer who comes to mind when we think of opera. Although he composed ten operas during his lifetime, only one, Rusalka, is part of the modern opera repertoire. Fairly successful in its time, Rusalka has been infrequently produced today. What notoriety it has achieved is largely due to the efforts of Lyric creative consultant Renneé Fleming, for whom Rusalka was a career watershed. Dvořák’s dark and sensuous tale was the vehicle that catapulted her to opera super stardom.
Lyric Opera’s dazzling new production of Rusalka turns the spotlight on each fascinating aspect of the Czech master’s modern folk tale in turn: brilliant choreography, compelling production design, and visionary direction are just the beginning. Incredible depth of casting down to the smallest supporting role, and a powerful orchestral performance that brings every facet of Dvořák’s masterful instrumentation into focus, are at the heart of Lyric’s Rusalka.
Famous for the synthesis of Czech and other Slavic idioms both musical and literary in his compositions, Dvořák chose the tale of a water nymph that falls in love with a human prince as the basis for Rusalka. The libretto, written by Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil, matches the tone of Dvořák’s music perfectly: achingly romantic, but with a dark and brooding perspective always hovering at the perimeter of the narrative. For their part, the Lyric production team has envisioned the story’s idyllic wood as the backwater of a post-Industrial wasteland, setting the tale in the Victorian era, its Golden Age opulence concealing dark Gothic overtones. Outfitted with a distinctly contemporary steam punk aesthetic, set designer John Macfarlane and costume designer Moritz Junge connect Gothic with Goth, Industrial Age with Post-Industrial apocalypse. These are visuals that a young contemporary audience can connect with, combined with the costume drama that traditional operagoers crave.
We know we are in for something new from Rusalka‘s very first scene, as wood nymphs in the form of soot-smeared street urchins, engage in lewd shenanigans beneath a gigantic full moon. Their cavorting awakens the water goblin Vodnik (Eric Owens) who, rising from the steaming lake at center stage, attempts to capture one of the randy creatures for himself. Owens, whom we found disappointing in Lyric’s 2010 production of Hercules, has gone on to critical successes as Sarastro in The Magic Flute and as Alberich in Das Rheingold, both at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, he shows those best colors, his rich voice lending gravity and pathos to Vodnik, who also happens to be Rusalka‘s father. When she finally appears, the lovely water nymph stands in stark contrast to the band of woodland ragamuffins. Gliding onto the scene in the palest of blue gowns, soprano Ana María Martinez shows remarkable grace and stunning physical acting skills as she bobs gently up and down in a watery choreography while singing a flawless aria. (In fact, she very rarely sings standing up in this role. It is a tribute to her tremendous vocal talent that she sings beautifully from so many different physical positions, including lying down.)
Rusalka has fallen in love with a handsome prince (Brandon Jovanovich) who comes often to swim in the lake. Jovanovich, with his sweet, clear tenor and devastating good looks is perfectly cast as the romantic object of Rusalka‘s very human desires. The nymph decries the fact that because she is made of water, the prince is unaware of her presence and cannot feel her embrace. She begs Vodnik to help her become a human being, not only so she can experience her prince’s love, but so that she will have a human soul that lives on after death. He tells her to seek the counsel of the witch Ježibaba (Jill Grove). As Rusalka conjures the sorceress, Ježibaba is preceded by her familiars: three ravens in tailcoats and top hats who flap and flop their way down from the top of an abandoned concrete tower and onto the stage, looking oddly like the 1940′s cartoon crows Heckle and Jeckle. Ježibaba is all gypsy mystic, layered with flounces, bracelets, and beads and full of warnings of dire consequences. There is a price for Rusalka‘s transformation: she will lose her ability to speak, and if she fails to capture the prince’s heart, they will both lose their mortal souls to eternal damnation.
As one might suspect, this tale cannot have a happy ending. Although in the beginning he woos her ardently and spirits her away to his mansion for an expedient wedding, the prince soon tires of Rusalka‘s muteness, which he interprets as reticence. He drifts back toward a former love, a glittering foreign princess (Ekaterina Gubanova) who eventually rejects him. Rusalka collapses in despair at the sight of them together, but not before Martinez deliver the wrenching aria “O marno to je.” No longer the dreamy romantic, Martinez’s Rusalka is torn apart, not a mythical being but not fully human, her heart shattered and spirit broken. As Vodnik appears to curse the prince, Rusalka tries to retreat to her watery home, but finds that she cannot. She and the prince are inextricably bound for eternity.
A cautionary tale on many levels, Rusalka reflects the composer’s strong Catholic perspectives on commitment and spiritual honesty, as well as modern director David McVicar’s unique take on the seedy underpinnings of material success. In addition to the countryside, wasted by industrial excess, the first glimpse we get of the prince’s environment is not the gilded ballroom with its gigantic fireplace and herd of mounted deer heads. It is the filthy underground kitchen; walls covered with greasy soot and blood from the gigantic beef carcasses that dominate the scene from their ceiling hooks. Here the kitchen boy (cheekily portrayed by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in a trouser role) and the gamekeeper (Philip Horst) worry about the strange creature their master is about to marry. Being true to one’s nature, personally and in terms of the environment, are strong underlying themes here.
Framing it all is Antonín Dvořák’s beautiful music, magnificently and powerfully delivered by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, with music director Sir Andrew Davis at the helm. Rarely will you hear an opera in which the orchestra is treated to so many stunning star turns, and as always the musicians of Lyric more than meet our highest expectations. Rusalka may be the least known of Lyric Opera’s offerings this season, but it may well be its crowning creative achievement. In the past, opportunities to experience this jewel of the Slavic repertoire have been few and far between. This Rusalka could very well change that for good.
4 STARS PLUS
(“Rusalka,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 16 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)
Rusalka production photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography / Lyric Opera of Chicago.