Fish out of water: gorgeous Rusalka doesn’t probe the murky depths

Dvořák: Rusalka ***

Metropolitan Opera, 8th February 2014

Renée Fleming (Rusalka) © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Renée Fleming (Rusalka)
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I’ve an inkling this production of Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera is the sort we’re supposed to shake our heads and sneer at. Sumptuously costumed and featuring handsome, realistic sets, Otto Schenk’s staging is practically everything asked for in the libretto, a production so traditional that even tenor Piotr Beczała, who has expressed his artistic displeasure at some operatic updatings, may just have found it too conservative. The only element of (mock) controversy in Schenk’s direction – and it perplexed Renée Fleming, returning to the title role – concerns why Rusalka sings her celebrated “Song to the Moon” from the top of a tree when she’s a water nymph. It was obvious that the decision was a purely aesthetic one, beautifully rendered even in HD, as proved by the gorgeous production shot to the right.

The staging is beautiful to look at, thanks to Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s naturalisitc sets and Gil Wechsler’s painterly lighting. The watery setting and mossy banks in the outer acts were beautifully effected, almost Disneyesque, whilst Act II featured a palace terrace leading down to a pool of water. Schenk doesn’t engage in any weird, disturbing directorial whims; just the case as in his Ring cycle, which is similarly dismissed in many quarters. Rusalka is, for sure, a dark fairy tale of an opera, which Schenk doesn’t probe too deeply, but some productions delve into the murky realms of nightmare, such as Martin Kušej’s Munich production, with overtones of the Josef Fritzl case hanging over it. Another was the underwater bordello setting employed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito in the Royal Opera’s dismal first staging of the opera in 2012. Kušej’s production is extraordinarily powerful in its psychological impact of the water nymph who yearns to become human in order to love her prince, but it’s refreshing to return to something which newcomers to the opera and jaded cynics alike should find enchanting.

Piotr Beczała (The Prince) © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Piotr Beczała (The Prince)
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Laurie Feldman’s stage direction was uninspired, emphasized by acting which was a little routine. Act III felt especially long, mainly because of Jezibaba’s tedious encounter with the gamekeeper and kitchen boy where Schenk (and Dvořák) allow the tension to sag. However, the musical performance was far from routine, due almost entirely to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s vital conducting, alert to the many Czech dance rhythms Dvořák injects into this deeply symphonic score and keeping the dreamier moments glistening and flowing. The woodwinds in the Met Orchestra were particularly fine and there was expressive phrasing from the horns. Nézet-Séguin’s conducting had been the highlight of Covent Garden’s production and it was the same story in New York. His tempi were well judged, especially the pomp of the courtly dances, which were full of vigour and character.

Renée Fleming first sang Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” in her student days and is singing her fourth revival of this production. Her soprano is remarkably well preserved in terms of its creamy quality and the silvery lustre of her high notes, but this most famous moment in the opera was more artfully managed than poetically sung, dragging the tempo back and robbing it of a sense of urgent desire. Her Act III aria lies uncomfortably low for her, with a sense of disconnect between registers. Whilst much of the rest of her singing was beautiful, as an interpretation it verged on the bland.

Renée Fleming (Rusalka) © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Renée Fleming (Rusalka)
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As the prince, Beczała was far more engaging, his heroic tone at the close of his Act I aria was quite magnificent. Apart from a brief lapse in intonation, his Act III duet with Fleming was thrilling, especially his beautiful head notes as he dies, a result of Rusalka’s passionate kiss. Beczała is no great shakes as an actor, but seemed focused and passionate in his delivery.

John Relyea (Vodník) © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

John Relyea (Vodník)
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The role of Vodník or the Water Sprite (or Water Gnome as the Met’s surtitler would have it) requires a bass-baritone with more heft at the top than the reliable John Relyea could muster, but he gave a good account of his Act II lament, one of the score’s great glories. As the witch Jezibaba, Dolora Zajick offered plenty of powerful chest notes in her caricature, while Emily Magee’s occasionally blustery Wagnerian soprano made a strong dramatic impression as the Foreign Princess, who tempts the Prince away from the cool, mute Rusalka in Act II.  The trio of wood nymphs (Dísella Làrusdóttir, Renée Tatum and Maya Lahyani) blended well vocally, though weren’t as flighty or flirty as in some productions where the by-play with Vodník is stronger.

A sumptuous production, whilst very pleasing to these eyes at least, requires stronger acting to maintain the attention. This revival suffered just too many lapses in tension. If only the direction had been as vital as Nézet-Séguin’s conducting.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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