Fairy-tale Magic of the Vocal Sort in Frankfurt

GermanyGermany Dvorak: Rusalka, Soloists, Opera Frankfurt Chorus, Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor), Opera Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, 28.06.14 (RP) 

Rusalka:  Karen Vuong
The Prince: Zoltán Nyári
The Foreign Princess: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Water Gnome: Mischa Schelomianski
Jezibaba, the Witch:  Katharina Magiera
First Wood Sprite: Nora Friedrichs
Second Wood Sprite: Elizabeth Reiter
Third Wood Sprite: Marta Herman
Gamekeeper: Simon Bailey
Turnspit:  Maria Pantiukhova

Director/Set Design: Jim Lucassen
Costumes: Amélie Sator
Lighting: Andreas Grüter
Dramaturge: Ton Boorsma
Chorus Master: Matthias Köhler

I was a bit surprised when I went to the box office at the Opera Frankfurt on Saturday to buy a ticket for that evening’s performance of Rusalka and was told that I had the choice of three seats. The staging has been in the repertoire for the entire season, and this was the last of the run. There is competition, as summer is brief in this part of the world and the World Cup in Brazil is a major distraction at the moment, although Germany was not playing that night. When the curtain rose that evening, the house was indeed full.

The production by Jim Lucassen had its premiere in 2010 at the Opéra National de Lorraine. Lucassen chose to set it in a natural history museum, and Rusalka’s realm is a realistic display where, safe behind glass, she is the object of the Prince’s longing gazes. The three Wood Sprites emerge from vitrines that house stuffed animals and birds. The Water Gnome lives in the bowels of the museum, while Jezibaba’s turf is a second-floor library. Act II is set in the dinosaur hall of the museum.

The concept works: it provides a reasonable facsimile of the divide between the world of the fairy-tale figures and the flesh-and-blood world of the Prince. On a personal note, I warmed up to the set immediately as it looked just like the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in the 1970s when I lived there. I imagine most natural history museums anywhere in the world looked pretty much the same back then, with old, faded exhibits and rather sad stuffed mammals, reptiles and birds.

Lucassen loaded the production with symbolism. And truth be told, more often than not the symbols did link to the story line. Rusalka’s safe place was a museum bench. She was to be found reclining on it quite a bit of the time. Then there was the bubble wrap. First appearing in Act II, it encased a rib bone destined to complete the dinosaur skeleton suspended above. In case anyone missed the phallic symbolism of the large, curved bone wrapped in plastic, the point was driven home when the Gamekeeper stuck it between his legs and made advances at the comely Turnspit.  Rusalka used a large swath of it as a security blanket of sorts when she was sheltering herself from the Prince and her growing awareness that he would betray her. Bubble wrap also served as her wedding veil and dress. The Prince came bearing the veil when he returned to her in Act III, and Rusalka places it on his dead body in the closing minutes of the opera. Who knew you could do so much with bubble wrap?

The symbol that I found most effective was Rusalka’s pair of beige high heels. In Act II the Prince brings them to her, attempting to coax her out of her slump and perhaps get a word or two out of her. She rejects him and the shoes. His bewilderment is genuine. She wears the shoes when in the human world, but at other times they sit forlornly on stage. When Rusalka notes the Foreign Princess’ navy blue shoes with their owner nowhere to be seen, she realizes that she has been betrayed. It was so simple, but so effective.

The costumes were also loaded with symbolism, but I do not know whether it was intentional or if my imagination just ran amok. Rusalka might have stepped out of Charles’s Dickens’ Great Expectations as Miss Havisham. It was the wig and makeup more than the dress. An imaginative and effective bit of staging came into play when Rusalka made her decision to become human. Jezibaba cut the scale-like flounces from the cream-colored dress that had concealed her legs. With a few snips of the scissors, Rusalka was transformed from a water nymph to a woman.

It did not stop with Dickens. Jezibaba was a sexy, slightly demonic Slavic version of Lilith from the sitcom Cheers. The saucy Wood Sprites in their red school uniforms would have been right at home singing “Three little maids from school are we” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.  The men’s costumes however did not prompt similar associations. A handsome young man in a dark blue suit is commonplace, and innumerable father figures in opera and theater are routinely costumed as Edwardian gentleman. But in the end, it was the cast that breathed life into this production of Rusalka, not the set, staging and costumes.

Karen Vuong’s Rusalka was a remarkable characterization both vocally and dramatically. That diminutive, ethereal creature never seemed to be a part of the human world, but her love for the Prince prompted her to risk it all, and she accepted the consequences with dignity. Her awkward first steps as a human being were full of trepidation and hope, and her subsequent dance-like leaps were simply joyful. She was almost always on stage. For most of Act II she is mute, but nonetheless I found my eyes drawn to her even when she was simply reclining on that bench with her back to the audience. Her light, exquisite, expressive lyric soprano captured the vast range of emotions that Rusalka experiences. And yes, she sang her hit tune beautifully. I just wished that she had not been required to sing it reclining on the bench. As petite as Vuong is, I kept worrying that she was going to slide off. That kind of distraction is just unnecessary.

Her prince, Zoltan Nyari, was handsome and dashing. He has a beautiful, burnished tenor voice. Nyari could be a bit more cautious in his singing, but he is never boring and the sound is thrilling. Whatever high note he was aiming for in Act III, perhaps the C that is in the score, he missed completely. You noticed it, but he recovered quickly and there was neither the time nor the need to dwell on it. He can act too: his bewilderment when Rusalka silently rejects him and the pair of shoes he brings her was palatable. Who hasn’t tried to make something better one way or another and failed? He captured the universal sense of utter frustration and helplessness in that poignant scene.  A minute later, he was the perfect cad chasing after the Foreign Princess.

Katharina Magiera gamely got into the spirit of the fussy librarian character that was her fate, and worked the knife and flashlight that she wielded for all they were worth. Vocally, she was a youthful, rich voiced witch. Mischa Schelomianski’s Water Gnome was a dignified, moving figure. His is a rich bass baritone, with the proper weight and authority for the role, although it thinned out on top at times. Of the remaining singers, Simon Bailey as the Gamekeeper left the strongest impression. That would have been the case even if he did not have to dance around the stage with that giant dinosaur bone between his legs.

Johannes Debus did fine work in the pit, making the most of Dvorak’s beautiful melodies and rich orchestrations. It was a taut, dramatic performance of a sweeping romantic opera. The orchestra and chorus were top-notch. Every time the brass played, I marveled at the beauty of their sound.

This was the first performance in quite some time where I did not have the option to watch the text fly by in one form or another. My seat was too far off to the side to see the projections, but I did not miss them a bit. Instead, it freed me to really focus on these fine singing actors and the sounds emanating from the pit. The three and a half hours, albeit with two intermissions, flew by. I suppose that, more than anything I wrote above, is the best indication it was a good night at the opera.


Rick Perdian