The Met is continuing its nightly streaming of operas and this week, its website tells us, that “in celebration of Pride Month, we’re paying tribute to just a handful of the extraordinary LGBTQ+ composers, singers, conductors, and directors who have shared their artistry with Met audiences.” One of the choices is its 2017 production of Antonin Dvořák’s lyric fairy tale Rusalka directed by Mary Zimmerman.
Rusalka premiered successfully in Prague 1901 but it did not make it to the Met until 1993 in a production directed by Otto Schenk. It was revived several times until replaced by Zimmermann’s interpretation in 2017.
The opera tells the tale of a water nymph or mermaid, a Rusalka, in fact, who falls in love with a mortal, a Prince, and decides to become human so she can live with her lover. Her father, the Water Gnome, disapproves of her decision but Rusalka is adamant and asks the Witch Jezibaba to turn her into a mortal. Becoming a mortal is tricky and costly. Rusalka loses her voice and is warned that if her love falters, the Prince will die.
The (This?) is a nice, albeit tragic fairy tale and Scheck’s production was a traditional and wonderful telling of the story. In short, a marvelous production of the opera. Mary Zimmerman has taken a conservative view as well and given the opera many light touches despite the eventual unhappy ending. The opening scene features three frolicking Wood Sprites, (the splendid Hyesang Park, Megan Marino and Cassandra Zoé Velasco) joined by a few other to give us a balletic sequence and an example of festive life in the forest glade by the lake.
Zimmermann’s lighter touch will be displayed in the scenes with the magnificent mezzo Jamie Brown as the Witch Jezibaba, and the gamekeeper (Alan Opie) and the kitchen boy (a splendid Daniela Mack). Brown should be charged with grand larceny for scene stealing and a vocal and physical performance that is utterly stupendous.
The rest is bleak and tragic. Soprano Kristine Opolais with her stunning voice, acting prowess and Nordic beauty chooses passionate love for a mortal only to become a woman spurned and humiliated. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich goes from passionate prince (Prince?) to a man who falls for The Foreign Princess (Katarina Dalayman) because of frustration at his mute Rusalka or shallowness or just because the fairy tale calls for it. Jovanovich shows vocal splendor and passion while Dalayman as the Princess is able to land the Prince despite her arrogance and insouciance.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens with his splendiferous voice (gives?) a signature performance as Rusalka’s father.
The opera ends with the death of the repentant Prince after a kiss from Rusalka. Zimmerman gives the final scene a nice touch. Rusalka says a prayer for her lover and wraps herself in his overcoat as she disappears into the lake. It is a moving if symbolic reunion of the lovers for eternity.
The sets by Daniel Ostling and the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are in fairy land with marge? indications of 18th century England.
It is a superb production in most respects and and I have no desire to quibble with it.
But a fairy tale is not worth its ghosts and sprites if psychologists, academics and directors cannot find deeper meanings and provide us ordinary mortals with interpretations that we never dreamt of.
Here are examples of takes on Rusalka that knocked my socks off.
In 1986, the English National Opera produced a Rusalka directed by David Pountney. As with the Zimmermann production, the conductor was Mark Elder. The cast was made (up?) of Eileen Hannan as Rusalka, John Treleaven as The Prince, Phyllis Cannan as The Foreign Princess, and Rodney Macann as the Water Gnome. The forest glade became an Edwardian nursery with four teenage sisters and a grumpy grandfather in a wheelchair. Rusalka wants to be liberated from her restrictive world and she dreams of another place where her governess becomes a witch, her grandfather is the Water Gnome and her sisters are the Water Nymphs. She is becoming sexually aware and dreams of an affair with a young man who ends up dead in the nursery. The (This?) is Freudian stuff to the hilt.
A DVD of the production (is?) available that is acceptable on many counts except for the fact that it is sung in English with no subtitles. It does not work.
In 2010 Kristine Opolais appeared in a production in Munich directed by Martin Kusej where Rusalka was represented as a human girl locked in the basement of a modern house. She and her sisters were beaten and raped by their alcoholic father. She escapes to a palace where the servants are gutting animals and her bridegroom is having sex with another woman against a wall. That’s taking Freud to the wall but everything may be taken as an underlying part of the fairy tale.
From being seriously ignored, Rusalka has become a very popular opera with numerous productions around the world. All we need now is to see a larger chunk of them.
Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák with text byJaroslav Kvapil was shown streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on June 22, 2021 and is available On Demand . For more information go to metopera.org/ You mention LGBTQ in your intro but don’t make the connection clear in the text – how does it connect?