Běda, Rusalka, běda (Poor Rusalka)

I’ve been on a blogcation for reasons related to work, as well as some concern that the world will not in fact exist in a few weeks so why am I writing about Bellini? Also, the opportunity to avoid both Gounod and Bartlett Sher at the same time was a proposition too efficient to resist. But as longtime readers may know, if a new production of Rusalka isn’t going to get me back, nothing is going to get me back. I’m back! Alas, this new Met Rusalka is not good.

Dvořák, Rusalka. Met Opera, 2/22017. New production directed by Mary Zimmerman and conducted by Mark Elder. Sets by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, lights by T.J. Gerckens, choreography by Austin McCormick. With Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), Brandon Jovanovich (Prince), Jamie Barton (Jezibaba), Eric Owens (Water Gnome), Katarina Dalayman (Foreign Princess)

I think Rusalka is one of those few operas which, like Lohengrin and Forza, absolutely requires a strong interpretive hand from the director. Rusalka is a fairy tale, but it’s the kind of fairy tale that’s a barely disguised bit of The Interpretation of Dreams and that unconscious is a seething swamp of fin-de-siècle paranoia regarding female sexuality. It’s an extended aestheticization and fetishization of Rusalka’s suffering for her desires. It’s a gorgeous opera but as far as I’m concerned not one that should ever be staged superficially. (I’ve seen a good number of interesting Rusalkas and written about most of them here; there is a list with links at the end of this post.)

But because Rusalka is the most popular opera in Czech and the Czechs have the unenviable status of being a “minor nationalism,” Rusalka is frequently and inappropriately made to represent operatic Czechness in toto. The Met’s program note introduces the opera as “decidedly Czech” and “imbued with the atmosphere of Bohemia’s woods and fields.” Rusalka is based on Hans Christian Andersen, and if it’s Czech atmosphere you want you’d be better off with anything by Smetana or Janáček. If we didn’t privilege Dvořák’s nationality over all other attributes—running to call that forest Bohemian rather than the place of dreams—maybe it would be easier to see that despite the composer’s relative musical conservatism Rusalka belongs in the same category as her nymph contemporaries Salome and Mélisande.

Or maybe we just need to start ignoring The Little Mermaid. I don’t know, I’m a musicologist. We’re obliged to make everything about historiography.

Mary Zimmerman’s new Met production isn’t entirely superficial, but its interpretive moves are too timid and confusing for it to communicate any particular perspective. Actually, it might be less satisfying than the old Otto Schenk production, which gave itself one job (make a pretty storybook production of Rusalka) and did it (cellophane pond and all). But I have no idea what the new production is trying to do. It’s a weird mix of alienation, twee, and semi-dark. The singers’ performances are all in different styles, and nothing comes together.

In Act 1, Rusalka lives in a world of gently alienated theatricality. The stage has ye olde visible boards and a series of proscenium arches with romantic forest imagery (not visible in any of the photos I could find). It seems a charming and harmless place. Everything starts off very sugary, with lots of little nymphs hopping and skipping around. Rusalka, however, is stuck in her tree, and the Water Gnome in his hole in the pond, and the production doesn’t seem to have any ideas how to make this restriction interesting. The Water Gnome also appears to be out of a storybook, as does Jamie Barton’s Jezibaba, who brings us into the world of Harry Potter with her half-human-half-animal assistants and arrays of bottles.

Barton is a lot of fun here. Her low mezzo is irresistibly rich and colorful, epic in size and effortless. (I’ve seen a lot of Rusalkas and hence a lot of Jezibabas and she is the best by a large margin.) She also shows real comic flair in a villain mode. The problem is that Kristine Opolais’s Rusalka seems to be in an entirely different, less cartoon-y opera. Her career breakthrough was in Martin Kusej’s harrowing but extremely powerful Rusalka in Munich (where I first saw her), in which her Rusalka was a young woman imprisoned in the Water Gnome’s basement. She seems to be giving some of the same raw, intense performance here: her Rusalka is still awkward and traumatized, more earthly than romantic.

Acting-wise it’s an effective performance, much better than her Manon Lescaut last year. She also gives Rusalka a somewhat edgy center, particularly when surrounded by a Disney film. Vocally, though, she’s not an ideal fit. Her middle and lower ranges are thin and sour, the only place her voice is exciting is when she is blasting out high notes. Rusalka does that a fair amount, and that works, but Opolais lacks the finesse, tonal beauty, and musicality to shape the many more lyrical moments of the score, particularly at the beginning of Act 3. In the Song to the Moon, she was unable to match conductor Mark Elder’s extremely slow tempos, running out of breath at the end of most phrases.

Back to the production. In Act 3, all of Act 1’s artifice is deconstructed and off-kilter. This is apt because Rusalka’s world has been shattered, but if Zimmerman’s point had been that Rusalka’s magic is the magic of theater itself (or something), that wasn’t clear to me. (I’ve seen a full-blown metatheatrical Rusalka, the Barrie Kosky one at the Komische Oper Berlin, and it could not be accused of timidity.) Why does everything fall apart–isn’t Rusalka’s destruction baked into the world she inhabits? When she returns to the forest, Jezibaba’s reaction is, more or less, “I told you so.” The system is working as designed.

There’s also a structural reason that I think Rusalka requires a more forceful director: there are a number of long, static stretches of the score, particularly the music of the nymphs in Acts 1 and 3, which are very pretty but need to be made into something onstage or else the opera stops for a very long time. For a director with a plan, these are opportunities to expand the world of the story, but Zimmerman has no ideas for these sections and they are filled with hopping, skipping, and twirling nymphs like someone turned over a large part of the score to Peaseblossom and Mustardseed. There are other parts that are weirdly unmotivated, too: when Rusalka is transformed into a human, there’s some business with Jezibaba’s assistants and a shadow play that makes no sense at all. (If you’ve seen this and have figured this sequence out, please enlighten me below.)

The visible signs of theatricality disappear for Act 2, which I found considerably more effective. But I think I have to give the score most of the credit for that, because unlike the other two it is taut in plot. The Prince shows a more violent side, one which is inexplicably and kind of problematically dropped for Act 3, and the ballet is oddly Spanish-ish, with lots of red and snapping fans. (This is particularly odd because most of the music is a polonaise.) The Foreign Princess is a campy cartoon (which she almost always is, the only interesting Foreign Princess is the one in the Herheim production). It’s filled with heavy-handed color symbolism, with humans represented by the Prince’s red walls and many red costumes and Rusalka with white and green. (The abrupt shifts from red to green light would be much more effective if more closely coordinated with the score.) But this is the act that puts Rusalka’s suffering at the center and Opolais can pull this part off.

As the Prince, Brandon Jovanovich’s baritonal tenor was warm and full and pleasant if not particularly charismatic (and like all Princes he falsettoed that ridiculous high C in the final duet), and he is a decent rather than a memorable actor. Eric Owens was much better here as the Water Gnome than his miscast appearance in L’amour de loin in December (which I saw but didn’t write about). He doesn’t have much stage presence or personality, but he’s also dressed as a frog-man so maybe the fault is not primarily his. As the Foreign Princess, Katarina Dalayman sounded and acted over-the-top and blowsy, but this is a cameo and I have to respect her for really going for it. Daniela Mack sounded very very overqualified as the Kitchen Boy though she and Alan Opie as the Huntsman suffered poor direction with much waving of the hands. Mark Elder’s conducting, as I said, was most notable for being sluggish. In the prelude this was particularly extreme, leading to some unusually messy entrances from the orchestra, which was otherwise in fine shape. The three nymphs sounded excellent and I would take them in the Ring any day.

This production is the odd semi-Regie of the Gelb era: it shoots for a few memorable tableaux but can’t integrate them into a compelling narrative. The Met and its audience’s conservatism seem to discourage directors from making any bold choices beyond a few visual ones of setting, and many of the directors who pop up at the Met seem to have little idea how to stage the music as well as the libretto. (Robert Lepage’s L’amour de loin showed that after a whole bunch of Met productions he still hasn’t grasped that you can make the stage flat and get singers to walk around on it and this can be a dynamic choice.) I’m not sure if there’s a solution to the Met’s conservatism, but hiring directors who know how to deal with music might be a start.

If you’d like to see some Rusalkas: I most highly recommend the DVDs of productions by Martin Kusej (with Opolais) and Stefan Herheim (from Brussels). If you’re in Berlin when Barrie Kosky’s production is at the Komische Oper, I recommend that too. There’s also a DVD of Robert Carsen’s production from Paris, which I don’t like quite as much but it’s still worth seeing. The Met’s Rusalka runs through March 2 and the inevitable Live in HD is on February 25.

Photos © Ken Howard/Met.

Thanks to CCB for the Dvořák consultation. Any misrepresentations are my own.

Previously in Rusalka on this blog

Bayerische Staatsoper/Martin Kusej

Semper Oper Dresden/Stefan Herheim

Komische Oper Berlin/Barrie Kosky

Volksoper Wien/André Barbe and Renaud Doucet

(I saw the old Otto Schenk production at the Met as well but didn’t write about it here.)

Video from the Met:

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  1. Great review!I’m Czech and I really appreciate that you’re not writing “the witch Jezibaba” like other reviewers because, as you know, it is redundant—Jezibaba means “witch” in Czech.

    1. Not just critics! The Met’s program describes the title role as “Rusalka, a water nymph.” I don’t speak Czech but attempt to remember to do better.

  2. Oh, dear. I need to decide whether or not to attend the HD or not. Maybe Barton is worth the price of admission and the time.

    Re Lepage, I would love to read what you have to say about L’Amour de Loin. My take on the problem you note is that Lepage deliberately uses restrictive stage designs so that he doesn’t have to think much about blocking the singers and having them really interact. Stick Alberich in a pit; put the Pilgrim in a boat and the other singers on a gantry where they can’t do much. It is pure laziness.

  3. Welcome back; we really missed your perceptive reviews. You can’t just leave us hanging. I also would have liked to ehar your thoughts about Bartlett Sher and Romeo et Juliette not to mention L’amour de loin

  4. Welcome back. An excellent review of a rilly silly and somewhat under-cast production. Opolais has really declined overt the past few years hasn’t she? She did not sound like this when I saw her sing this in Munich. The only thing I’ll add is that Carson’s Paris production actually does far more with the Foreign Princess than a camp cartoon and the Munich production presents her as much more menacing even if concept wise it’s a fairly traditional rendering. I think the role is a bit underrated, the cruelty of her addresses to Rusalka are chilling (The Munich staging had her and and Prince circling Rusalka and it was remarkable).

    Did you see Mattila in Jenufa?

  5. “There are other parts that are weirdly unmotivated, too: when Rusalka is transformed into a human, there’s some business with Jezibaba’s assistants and a shadow play that makes no sense at all. (If you’ve seen this and have figured this sequence out, please enlighten me below.)”

    So, I’ve seen the production and I was left trying to figure this moment out as well… my best guess is that they were going to cut Rusalka’s dress/tail/lily pond off (hence the axe) but it looks like Rusalka fights back and tries to run off, only to have her end up back on the table and wheeled off stage? It definitely seems confusing to me, as if Mary Zimmerman wanted to do something similar to the 2011 Komische Oper production, without actually de-boning Rusalka. Again, Zimmerman’s choice seems very in line with the rest of her choices: not doing a super-traditional production but at the same time not taking big risks. I think part of this has to do with the Met’s audience, as anything too Regietheater is frowned upon, although I cant’ remember much backlash from Richard Jones’ Hansel and Gretel which is surprising.

    I did find Jamie Barton as Jezibaba and the three nymphs particularly enjoyable, however. They made forking over the ticket price for a somewhat underwhelming production totally worth it.

    1. Yeah, Rusalka was violently resisting and it was happening behind a shadow screen and then they decided to drop that idea and wheel her around the stage and then she apparently decided to stop resisting for no reason? It’s like three different ideas with no clear motivation except directorial indecision.

      To be fair, Jamie Barton’s Jezibaba seemed way too harmless to debone anyone.

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