Met’s Rusalka Works its Magic with Fine Performances and Design

United StatesUnited States Dvořák, Rusalka: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera  / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), shown at Duke of York Cinema, Brighton as part of the Met Live series, 8.2.14 (RB)

This production from the Met takes a very traditional approach to Dvořák’s dark fairy tale.  During the course of the opera, Rusalka, a water nymph calls on the witch Ježibaba to make her human so she can fall in love with the Prince.  Ježibaba agrees but warns her that she will lose the power of speech by becoming mortal and that if she does not find love, the man she loves will die.  Things do not go smoothly for Rusalka and the Prince and at the end of the opera she kisses him and he dies in her arms.  The opera is interesting in that the composer deprives his heroine of the power of speech at various points in the drama and we only hear Rusalka and the Prince singing together at the very end of the opera.

The opening Act is set in a meadow by a lake and we open to an idyllic, bucolic scene with the three wood sprites frolicking by the lake with the water gnome.  The set was a sea of green, blue and brown and diaphanous fabrics, and subtle lighting was used to depict the lake.  In the second Act we move to the castle and see impressive stone steps rising in a semi-circular arc to an opulent ballroom which we can only glimpse through windows.  The water nymphs were all dressed in shimmering blue dresses while John Relyea’s water gnome was sporting an impressively buffed false torso.  The Prince and courtiers were all wearing traditional 18th Century Czech aristocratic outfits.

Rusalka is something of a signature role for Renée Fleming. Indeed she made her debut on the Met stage more than quarter of a century ago singing ‘Song to the Moon’.  There was an ease and fluency with which she approached the role and the vocal lines were very even and delivered with flawless intonation.  However, some of the singing, whilst technically, perfect, seemed a little bland and uninvolving and I felt she did not really inhabit the role and make it her own.  The famous ‘Song to the Moon’ was a case in point – it had a lovely finish and tonal sheen but it did not really have the soaring, rapturous quality that characterise the great performances.  Fleming was better in the Second Act where there was a much greater sense of urgency and passion in the singing.  Piotr Beczala is a familiar face at the Met and he was magnificent in the role of the Prince.  He brought a sweetness and musicality to the lyrical writing while the dramatic sections of the opera were delivered with considerable vocal power and passion.  Beczala is also a very convincing actor and he captured perfectly the Prince’s captivation with Rusalka and his mystification and inability to penetrate the mystery surrounding her.

Ježibaba is an archetypal witch straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, and Dolora Zajick did a wonderful job in bringing the character to life.  She was vocally powerful and dramatic in the role and brought a real edge to the character, while the cast of child extras lent some humour to the proceedings in their woodland creature costumes.  John Relyea captured the fun and fantasy of the water gnome’s opening scenes and he brought a refined vocal lyricism to the role.  He was a little less convincing in the scenes where he had to depict the power and authority of the character.  The cast and orchestra did a brilliant job in depicting the enchanted opening scene with Nézet-Séguin giving us some exquisitely delicate textures and colouring and three wood sprites providing perfectly blended harmonies.  Emily Magee brought an intense dramatic quality to the role of the foreign Princess while Vladimir Chmelo and Julie Boulianne, in the roles of the gamekeeper and kitchen boy, also acquitted themselves well particularly in the opening scene of Act Two.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin kept a firm grip on the evening’s proceedings achieving an astonishing variety of shimmering orchestral textures and sonorities and providing a flexible and responsive accompaniment to the singers (the introduction to the ‘Song to the Moon’ was exceptionally fine).  The score oscillates between darkness and light and between intense lyricism and high drama and Nézet-Séguin succeeded in synthesizing all these elements.  I was particularly impressed with Act 2 where the orchestra successfully conveyed the turmoil of the silent Rusalka, and with the courtly dance section which was dispatched with supreme elegance and decorum.

Overall, this was a very good production with the plaudits going to Beczala, Nézet-Séguin and the set and costume designers.

Robert Beattie