Cool sapphire and steel: Kristine Opolais stars in Mary Zimmerman’s Regie-lite Rusalka at the Met

Dvořák: Rusalka

The Met in HD, 25th February 2017

Dvořák’s Rusalka didn’t receive its Metropolitan Opera premiere until 1993, when Otto Schenk’s typically lavish production served up Dvořák’s best-known opera as little more than a Disney fairy-tale. At first sight in this Met in HD relay, Mary Zimmerman’s new staging looks as sumptuous and as traditional with its gnarled tree, giant moon and frolicking wood sprites garbed in foliage and twigs. But it’s darker than its predecessor, with elements of the surreal, appropriately so given the work is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the disturbing tale about the mermaid who yearns for to be human.

Kristine Opolais (Rusalka)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The witch Ježibaba agrees to help Rusalka, who wishes to assume human form because she has fallen in love with the Prince, but it comes at a cost. Rusalka will lose the power of speech and if she doesn’t find love, she will be damned forever. Although the Prince is captivated by her, he is perplexed by her coldness. When he confesses his love for the Foreign Princess instead, Rusalka returns to her watery life. The Prince follows her, full of remorse, and succumbs to Rusalka’s kiss, even though he knows it will kill him. As Kristine Opolais told me in our recent interview, “this is no Cinderella story”!

Daniel Ostling’s set is a surreal box, with images of the countryside plastered on the interior. It looks picturesque, but by Act 3 it seems that Rusalka is in a theatre – its floorboards splintered, sets peeling away from its scaffolding. Her fantasy of life as a human has been wrecked.

Jamie Barton (Ježibaba)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Zimmerman makes a few odd choices. Jamie Barton looks terrific in a dress shrouded in cobwebs, and sounds even better as Ježibaba, in sumptuous, dark claret voice. But the role is played for laughs, Barton cackling like a pantomime import from Hansel and Gretel. Her three half-animal, half-human assistants appear to be experiments that have gone wrong, but they’re more cutesy than grotesque. Eric Owens, in sonorous voice as Vodník, the Water Goblin (or Water Gnome as the Met curiously titles him), is made to look like an aquatic Shrek, with green stubby fingers.

Kristine Opolais (Rusalka) and Eric Owens (Vodník)

Act 2 comes off best here, the Polonaise full of lascivious twerking by courtiers in grotesque Baroque costumes (choreography by Austin McCormick). They taunt Kristine Opolais’ Rusalka, alienated in her new surroundings, literally a fish out of water. Katarina Dalayman’s Foreign Princess is blowsy but full-throated and histrionic. Sir Mark Elder revelled in the glowing Wagnerian score, which is more Bayreuth than Bohemia, drawing gorgeous sounds from the Met Orchestra.

Kristine Opolais (Rusalka)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Kristine Opolais soprano is an instrument of cool sapphire with glints of steel, which suits the title role. She acts superbly, full of nervy glances like a timid deer, especially in Act 2 where she is rendered dumb for much of the action. High notes sounded secure with a thrilling ring, although it’s impossible to judge the size of the voice via cinema relay. (I’ve sometimes been disappointed by her small-scale Puccini in the ROH.)

Brandon Jovanovich impressed as the Prince. His baritonal tenor has few heroic high notes, but it’s a lovely voice and it lasted the course during the long evening. Zimmerman portrays the Prince sympathetically. There are blue skies and scattered yellow flowers for his first meeting with Rusalka, where he tenderly enfolds her in his coat. After she kills the Prince with her kiss, Rusalka again dons his coat and wanders off into the moonlight.

Brandon Jovanovich (Prince) and Kristine Opolais (Rusalka)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Mary Zimmerman’s production borders on Regie-lite… but Regie-lite is better than Regie-crap such as we witnessed in the Covent Garden fiasco of 2012. It doesn’t really plunge into the psychological darkness though – for that you need to try Martin Kusej’s gripping Munich production (reviewed on Blu-ray here), in which Kristine Opolais secured her international reputation.

A few stern words about the Live in HD interval interviews. It’s interesting to hear what the singers have to say about their roles, but to be pounced upon by the amiable Matthew Polenzani as soon as the curtain falls just isn’t fair. Pre-record them. However, the interview with Leontyne Price, now aged 90, recalling the opening of the house in 1966, along with footage of Antony and Cleopatra, was fantastic. Priceless even.

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