Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dvorák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera, February 8, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had planned to attend the live screening of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dvorák’s rarely heard opera Rusalka but we got the time wrong and got into the theatre about half an hour late, thereby missing the score’s most famous aria — the “Hymn to the Moon” sung by the female lead, the water sprite Rusalka — as well as a lot of exposition needed to understand the plot. We did get to see the remaining 2 ½ acts of the opera, and earlier this morning I heard a very poor-sounding recording of the first act online. To the extent that Rusalka has a modern-day following at all, it’s because of Renée Fleming, who made the “Hymn to the Moon” her audition piece for the Met’s young singers program when she was starting out and has become by far the world’s most famous living exponent of the title role. Though Rusalka is by a composer who’s quite well known among classical music fans, it’s got a strike against it in that it’s in Czech, not exactly one of the big operatic languages — Charles found an online post of an acoustic recording of the “Hymn to the Moon” by soprano Emmy Destinn, and though it was hard to tell I got the impression that even Destinn, who was Czech, was singing the aria in German (the one Czech opera that did make it into the international standard repertoire in the 20th century, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, was until recently usually performed in German translation).

It’s got another strike against it in that Dvorák was a great composer, but his reputation these days hangs mainly on his symphonies and chamber music rather than his operas — and one gets the impression he was more comfortable in these shorter forms and writing for instruments exclusively rather than voices. The “Hymn to the Moon” is a glorious aria, but like “Ebben, ne andro lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally it’s the sort of “greatest hit” that gives you a false impression of the opera it’s from. Just as you wouldn’t guess from “Ebben, ne andro lontana” that the rest of La Wally is heavily Germanic and sounds a lot like an Italian composer trying to do a pastiche of Wagner (not surprisingly when you realize that the opera is set in the Tyrol and the characters have Germanic names), you wouldn’t guess from the “Hymn to the Moon” that the rest of Rusalka is in a mishmash of styles. Plotwise, it’s the old one about the fairy goddess — here a “water sprite” — who’s in love with a mortal, and how nothing good can possibly come of such a mismatch; Rusalka (Renée Fleming), oldest of four water-sprite sisters, has spied a character merely referred to as “the Prince” (Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, whose name I have heard pronounced more than one way; last time he appeared on a Live from the Met show it came out something like “Bek-WAH-nuh” and yesterday it was more or less “BESH-ah-luh”) hunting in the woods near the lake where Rusalka, her three water-sprite sisters (Dixella Larusdotter, Renée Tatum and Maya Lahyani) and their dad, the Water Gnome (John Relyea) all live. Supposedly Rusalka and the Prince have spied each other and it’s love — or at least lust — at first sight, even though both the Water Gnome and the local witch Jezibaba (Dolora Zajick) warn Rusalka that if she falls in love with and marries a mortal she will lose her power of speech — meaning that for the second half of the first act and the first half of the second Rusalka isn’t allowed to sing at all, which makes it rather disappointing for someone who’s bought a ticket to hear Renée Fleming’s voice to get to hear so little of it.

In the second act the Prince takes Rusalka to his castle, whereupon he’s confronted by the Foreign Princess (Emily Magee), whom he’s expected to marry for reasons of state, though the Princess also genuinely has the hots for him and gets to sing an aria (far more passionate and intense than anything Rusalka gets to sing!) about how she’s fiery and sunlit while Rusalka can only offer him the chilly embraces of the moon. (I give the Met’s costume designer credit for dramatizing the text by having the Princess dress in “warm” red and Rusalka in “cool” light blue.) Meanwhile, Rusalka is confronted by her father, who tries to get her to go back to the lake and abandon her mad infatuation with a Prince who’s so easily led astray by a woman of his own kind — and I suddenly realized that Dvorák and his librettist, Jaroslav Kvapil, had copied the four principals and their interrelationships from Verdi’s Aïda and simply transposed them to a supernatural story. There’s the tenor who has social position, the mezzo he’s supposed to marry to ensure his power, the outside woman (the soprano lead and title character) he’s really in love with, and the outside woman’s father (the baritone) who’s trying to break them up — only Verdi and his libretto committee (the basic plot of Aïda was worked out by a French Orientalist who called himself Mariette Bey in honor of his interest in Egyptian culture, Antonio Ghislanzoni was hired to turn Bey’s French prose into Italian verse, but for two of Aïda’s biggest emotional moments, the aria “O patria mia” and the final duet, Verdi tossed out his librettists’ contributions and wrote the final text himself) came up with not only naturalistic but entirely reasonable and comprehensible reasons for the principals to behave as they do. Dvorák and Kvapil worked under the same misapprehension as a lot of modern-day fantasy writers (including such “names” as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman): that once you have set your story outside of the bounds of normal human reality you can literally make anything happen, no matter how little internal sense it makes or whether what happens in Act III necessarily follows the ground rules you laid down in Act I.

Act III takes place back at Rusalka’s lake, where her three sisters have taken over the ritual to the moon and Jezibaba (ya remember Jezibaba?) tells her that the only way Rusalka can end her exile from the water-sprite community is to take a magic knife and stab the Prince to death. Later on Rusalka is told by her dad that just by embracing the Prince again she can kill him without bloodshed, but even after she does so she’s told that that’s not good enough — I guess we were supposed to think that she actually had to spill the Prince’s blood to be redeemed — and how it ends, at least according to the synopsis on Wikipedia, is, “Rusalka thanks the Prince for letting her experience human love, commends his soul to God, and returns to her place in the depths of the lake as a demon of death.” That really isn’t at all clear in the Met’s production, which leaves Rusalka more or less alive at the end but doesn’t spell out her fate except to make it clear that it’s a miserable one — but then it’s a 19th century opera, so what do you expect? A happy ending? (Actually one reason so many 19th century operas end tragically is composers and librettists of the period were rebelling against the 18th century convention that operas were supposed to end happily, even if they literally had to resort to the old deus ex machina gimmick to do it.) As gloriously as Renée Fleming sounded in the third act once she finally got to let her voice out again after the “Hymn to the Moon” and the limited amount of singing she gets in Act I until she meets the Prince and is obliged to shut up, by this time I was just getting anxious for the whole thing to end. Rusalka might be one of those operas that it’s better just to listen to than actually to see, and though I give the Met points for doing this in a traditional production and not trying to update it (to when and where, one wonders — modern-day Disneyland?), there’s a certain in-your-faceness to a Live in HD presentation you don’t get in the house. “Live” you would be far enough away from the Water Gnome not to notice that his costume is essentially a velvet jumpsuit with dirty-green tassels hanging down from it to indicate he’s covered in seaweed; on a movie screen in close-up that’s all too obvious. There were also three creatures in the opening act, children getting to play Jezibaba’s familiars, which were supposed to be young frogs that have acquired the ability to stand on two legs, who quite frankly looked more like they belonged in a fantasy by H. P. Lovecraft (one could well imagine the half-man, half-fish creatures of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” looking like this) than one by Jaroslav Kvapil.

As for the singing, Renée Fleming’s voice is glorious as ever but acting has never been her strong suit — the first time I saw her, in a c. 1990 Met telecast of Verdi’s Otello, she sang beautifully but seemed like a dramatic nullity (especially by comparison to her co-stars, Plácido Domingo and Justino Diaz, who grabbed hold of their characters and portrayed them vividly — yes, there’ve been Domingo performances in which he seemed to be “phoning it in,” but not that time!), and during the long periods of Rusalka in which the central character is mute, I couldn’t help but think how much better Leontyne Price (whom I saw in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and who was such a powerful “presence” she could dominate a stage with her back to the audience) could have handled the challenge of an opera character who can’t speak (or sing) for much of her opera. Piotr Beczala was annoyingly stentorian, though I can’t blame him much for that because it’s an excruciatingly difficult role; you have to sing long Italianate vocal lines over an orchestra of almost Wagnerian volume and you have to bring an heroic quality to the role (even though Kvapil’s libretto writes him as the usual tenor idiot, singing long odes to his “white doe,” as if he’s encountered Rusalka while hunting and therefore isn’t even sure what species she is) while at the same time singing very high, including a D above high C, which Beczala made but unattractively. Frankly the supporting cast members, notably Emily Magee and John Relyea, sang more powerfully than the leads! It also doesn’t help that the opera is so musically uneven; parts of it are magnificently beautiful, while parts of it simply mark musical time and make one all too aware of why Dvorák’s reputation today is as a symphonic and chamber-music composer rather than an opera composer. At the start of Act II there’s a duet for two rustics — servants of the Prince — the Gamekeeper (Vladimir Chmelo) and the Kitchen Boy (a “trouser” — woman-in-drag — role for Julie Boulianne) — which gives us some more plot exposition and is about the only thing in this score that sounds like the work of a Czech composer.

I was beginning to wonder if I would have liked Rusalka better if we’d arrived on time and hadn’t missed its Greatest Hit — until, between Acts II and III, the Met showed a promo of their next Live in HD presentation, Borodin’s Prince Igor (in a new and highly controversial edition of the score by director Dmitri Tcherniakov), and the two bits they presented, a powerful military song for the title character and a seduction aria from the princess of his enemies, the Polovsti, who tries to seduce him among what the narration described as a field of poppies (“Take my hand, I’m a stranger in poppydise,” I sang sotto voce to Charles, referencing the famous pop song taken from Prince Igor) though they looked more like poinsettias to me — and damned if Borodin’s music didn’t seem so much more powerful, dramatic and alive than Dvorák’s that I found myself thinking, “Now that’s an opera!”