A COC premiere
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/31/2009 - & February 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 2009
Antonín Dvorák: Rusalka
Julie Makerov (Rusalka), Michael Schade (Prince), Irina Mishura (Jezibaba), Richard Paul Fink (Water Gnome), Joni Henson (Foreign Princess), Teiya Kasahara (First Wood Nymph), Lisa DiMaria (Second Wood Nymph), Erin Fisher (Third Wood Nymph), Niculae Raiciu (Hunter), Michael Barrett (Gamekeeper), Betty Allison (Turnspit)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), John Keenan (Conductor)
Dmitri Bertman (Director), Hartmut Schörghofer (Set Designer), Corinna Crome (Costume Designer), Thomas C. Hase (Lighting Designer)
(© Michael Cooper)
The Canadian Opera Company’s first production of Rusalka is enchanting both visually and musically, but with a few flaws arising from director Dmitri Bertman’s meddlesome proclivities. The program contains a director’s note that almost apologizes for not imposing a Freudian or similar gloss on the tale, but we soon learn that he is incapable of a straightforward presentation (after all, he gave us the Krafft-Ebbing Traviata a couple of seasons ago).
The story: a water nymph falls in love with a mortal (a prince no less) and the local sorceress, Jezibaba, allows her to assume human form BUT (isn’t there always a “but”!) she must remain mute while with humankind. Her father, the Water Gnome, naturally disapproves. In addition, if the prince should ever be unfaithful to her, he will die and she can never return to the lake. At first her love for him seems requited, but he finds it hard to deal with her silence. Plus a foreign princess enters the picture, complete with her royal sense of entitlement. Rusalka realizes she can never be a real mate to the prince; Jezibaba decrees the only way to break the spell is for her to kill the prince. This she refuses to do. It turns out that the tormented prince is faithful after all and seeks her out; a final kiss results in his death in the lake.
The production’s big plus is the way the set and lighting correspond with Dvorák’s distinctive sound world. The watery opening scene has wood nymphs astride luminous waterbugs in the depths of the lake and there is much splashing about in what turns out to be real water. The blue-green shimmer reflects into the auditorium, whether by happy accident or design. The water feature turns out to be part of a revolving set that takes us smoothly into the Prince’s world, dominated by a stark white bedroom.
Grand ceremonial music (reminiscent of the entry of the guests in Act II of Tannhäuser) introduces the wedding scene and instead of the expected procession the set revolves several times, with an altered tableau each time the separate scenes come into view. This is one of several directorial/scenic innovations that work. Another is the Mae West portrayal of Jezibaba; Irina Mishura plays it to the hilt both vocally and dramatically. Later, however, it seems that the interloping princess is under the control of Jezibaba (or is perhaps another incarnation of her). The witch has already made things difficult for Rusalka; it seems like overkill that she should be able to manipulate events at the royal court as well.
Also vocally and dramatically vivid is Richard Paul Fink as the Water Gnome. He carries a glowing watery orb (goldfish bowl?) that I suppose represents a power he commands. But then some of the prince’s courtiers also carry such orbs; this is all very pretty and new age-y, but what is it all about?
Julie Makerov is totally right as Rusalka - this could well be a calling card role for her. It’s a good thing her great number, the “Hymn to the Moon”, occurs in the opening scene as she then has to remain silent for a long stretch of the action. The orchestra of 78 players (15 more than for the other work being performed by the COC right now, Fidelio) is employed in a discreet, impressionistic way for the most part, nicely conducted by John Keenan. There are a couple of taxing climaxes for her, as for the tenor lead, the unnamed prince, played by Michael Schade. His is a lyric voice and this new role seems to be a venture into dramatic territory. He gives forth some terrific high notes but is covered by the orchestra a bit, especially during the final duet, a kind of mutual liebestod, in which the water nymph and earthling declare their love and as a result lose their lives.
In contrast to the fantastical fairytale world of Rusalka, Jezababa et al, the Prince is dressed in modern “smart casual” attire. He acts properly entranced at his initial encounter with Rusalka, and later on he effectively mimes anguish and remorse, but much of the time he is hand-in-the-pocket casual. His courtiers are also “modern”, dressed in strict fashionista black and white. They are onlookers at the final scene and seem to be trapped in their hermetic stark space, another example of the director drawing attention from the central tale to no great advantage.
Two lighthearted scherzo scenes where palace servants comment on the action provide comic relief. Instead of servants, however, two “members of the audience” pop out of their seats; Ensemble Studio members Michael Barrett and Betty Allison sing their folk-inflected lines with brio and bite. They encounter Jezibaba and the Water Gnome in their off-hours; she has her hair in curlers and pampers a small beribboned dog; he is relaxing with a cigar and i-pod.
As amusing as the two commentators are, much of their business is acted (and sung) in the orchestra-level aisles. Those in the upper (i.e., cheaper) reaches of the theatre miss much of the fun.
Rusalka’s sister wood nymphs (reminiscent of the Rhinemaidens) sound great, especially Teiya Kasahara who has an extended solo while soaring through the air on a waterbug. A Czech-speaking friend informs me that overall the cast’s enunciation deserves a passing grade; kudos to language coach Dagmar Rydlo.
The impressionistic style of the music is reminiscent of Pelléas et Mélisande, which is the better-known piece and was premiered 13 months after Rusalka. Post-Parsifal modulation seemed to be in the air during that era; Dvorák managed to assimilate it while retaining his own distinctive coloration.
We are told that this is a popular family opera in the Czech Republic, but it hasn’t caught on elsewhere very much, and certainly not in North America. Hansel and Gretel is also a fairytale with a dark side to it - but the children escape. Rusalka has its jolly moments but in the end is downright sombre.
The COC was co-founded in 1950 by Nicholas Goldschmidt, a Czech-born conductor, impresario, educator, etc. and Rusalka is presented to honour his centenary. (He almost lived to see it as he died just five years ago.)
There is some advanced stagecraft on display in this production (from Theater Erfurt, Germany) and it would be great to see more productions where such craft is so effectively used. (With a few alterations the set could be used for Das Rheingold and usher in quite the fantastical Ring cycle.) It is strong musically and the director’s positive innovations outweigh the negative ones. It is well worth seeing.