Stage Door Review

Rusalka

Thursday, October 17, 2019

✭✭

by Antonín Dvořák, directed by Sir David McVicar

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

October 12, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 & 26, 2019

Ježibaba: “Man is an outrage who has abandoned nature”

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, is only one small step away from perfection. Director Sir David McVicar pays close attention to the text and maintains tension in the arc of the story through all three acts. Designer John Macfarlane’s sets look as if they were intricate, dark-hued illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Johannes Debus is fully in his element with this late Romantic score and continually highlights Dvořák’s echoes of Wagner. Most exciting of all, Sondra Radvanovsky, in a radical shift from her bel canto roles, gives an ardent, fully-realized portrayal of the title role that proves she is equally in command of the far different demands of the Romantic repertoire.

Rusalka (1901) is Dvořák’s most performed opera and provides a virtuoso part for the soprano who takes on the title role. It is not unlike the expertise required for a ballerina who dances the title role in Giselle (1841) since both involve a central female character who appears both as a human being and as a supernatural spirit. The title of Dvořák’s opera is not a proper name but a common noun since a rusalka in Czech simply means a water nymph. In the opera Rusalka’s father is called Vodník, but that, too is a common noun in Czech, designating a male water spirit. 

The story for the opera comes from a combination of elements in “Undine” (1811) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and “The Little Mermaid” (1837) by Hans Christian Andersen. In both a female water spirit falls in love with a human prince and wishes to become human and to possess a soul. In both the prince is already betrothed to a human princess but breaks his troth to marry the now-human water spirit. To become human the water spirit must also become mute. In both stories the society makes fun of the strangeness and awkwardness of the prince’s bride and tires of her. In both the prince’s betrayal of the water spirit incurs a penalty of death from the world of nature. In both the sentence is carried out by the spirit with a kiss of death. From Fouqué, Dvořák’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil takes the importance of the water spirit’s relationship to her father. From Andersen, he takes Rusalka’s transformation from a water spirit to a spirit of the air but pointedly removes Anderson’s ending where the spirit can redeem herself. 

McVicar’s production is extraordinarily well-conceived except for one flaw. This is his use of a prologue mimed during the overture showing the Prince rejecting the advances of his wife, the Foreign Princess. Entranced by an enormous painting of a forest lake on the front drop, the Prince downs a draught of an unknown drug from a vial and falls to the floor. When the opera proper begins the drop rises to reveal Macfarlane’s set looking like a three-dimensional rendering of the painting. The Prince crawls into the set and vanishes.

The point of this prologue is confusing. The Prince dies before the action of the opera is complete, so the prologue can hardly represent his memory of the past. One therefore has to assume that the action of the opera represents an hallucination by the unhappily married Prince motivated by his continuing obsession with Rusalka. He imagines what his involvement with her would have been and how it would have ended in a death that he apparently longs for. Yet, to view the action as the Prince’s hallucination means that the subsequent action has never really happened. 

Fortunately, the prologue has no influence on the clarity of McVicar’s storytelling of the opera itself. The peculiarity that Rusalka in Act 2 cannot speak to humans but can speak to nature spirits McVicar makes clear by having Rusalka’s interview with her father Vodník take place outside the Prince’s ballroom and away from humans. McVicar’s insight into Rusalka’s disgust with human beings is underscored when he shows Rusalka horrified to see the ballroom decorated with myriad heads of stags, animals she would have lived with in the forest.

Costume designer Moritz Junge imagines the natural world as a faded mirror image of the human world. The 19th-century clothing of all the wood- and water-spirits is stained and torn. The three Wood Nymphs are clad as leather booted ballerinas in tattered, mud-stained tulle. All are randy, motivated by lust, not love. It is in loving the Prince that Rusalka distinguishes herself from her fellow nymphs and satyrs. Macfarlane’s set for the spirits’ natural home features concrete bulwarks on both stage left and right to suggest that humankind is already encroaching on nature and destroying it. Indeed, near the of the opera, Vodník states that his lake has become so polluted he is leaving whereupon he takes a large suitcase out of the water and walks away. With this we realize that the decay in the finery of the nature spirits reflects the decay in the natural world they embody. 

Sondra Radvanovsky, who had already dazzled Toronto audiences in previous seasons with her Norma and with Donizetti’s three Tudor queens, astonished audiences with her complete mastery of a late Romantic role as far removed in style from bel canto as possible. Playing Rusalka allows Radvanovsky to display her formidable acting talent. Physically, Radvanovsky lends Rusalka a sinuosity of movement that persists even when the water nymph becomes a human being. In Act 2  we share Rusalka’s distress when Radvanovsky mimes the agony of Rusalka’s enforced muteness. 

Musically, Radvanovsky coloured her rich, infinitely expressive soprano to represent each of the stages Rusalka experiences – from innocent water nymph, to an unhappy human being, to a distraught spirit caught between two worlds and finally to a sorrowing ghost fated to kill the man she loves. It is an electrifying performance more completely imagined than any this reviewer has seen, including in the Czech Republic. Radvanovsky endows each of Rusalka’s incarnations so fully that her exquisite account of the “Song to the Moon” is simply one highlight of many.

Pavel Černoch is ideal as the Prince. His silvery tenor that blooms so smoothly into its upper register well conveys the Prince’s ardour as so fiery we sense it could well burn itself out. Černoch is also a master of expressivity and his plangent tones when singing to the ghostly Rusalka in Act 3 pointedly contrast the Prince’s final longing for death with his earlier longing for love. 

As Vodník, Štefan Kocán won the audience over immediately with his warm, plush bass. In the mingled sadness and anger of Vodník’s reaction to Rusalka’s desire to become human, it was hard not to hear echoes of Wotan’s tempered rage at Brünnhilde. Elena Manistina seems a rather young Ježibaba but her strong, full mezzo-soprano gives her authority and menace while her fine acting lends the witch a grim sense of humour. Keri Alkema’s bright, hard soprano well suits the scheming Foreign Princess. Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher, mezzo Jamie Groote and mezzo Lauren Segal, each impressive singers on their own, blend perfectly as the three Wood Nymphs. Full-voiced tenor Matthew Cairns as the Gamekeeper and soprano Lauren Eberwein in the trousers role of the Turnspit provide the comic commentary on the action that helps lighten the opera’s dark atmosphere. 

A feature of McVicar’s production sure to please is his use of a 19th-century-style ballet during the ballroom scene. Choreographer Andrew George has clever created a tragic ballet about a fairy princess (Beth Maslinoff) who weds a mortal prince (Godwin Merano) and has her fairy wings torn off – an obvious parallel to the main plot. McVicar uses this ballet to point out the irony of human dancers impersonating stereotypical fairies while a human being, Rusalka, watches who actually was once a supernatural being. McVicar and George’s suggestion is that the ballet has deliberately appropriated Rusalka’s story in order to mock her in public, an idea, which like the theme of man’s pollution of nature, gives the story remarkable contemporary relevance.   

The COC first presented Rusalka in a production by Dmitri Bertman in 2009. McVicar’s production is superior in every way to that – in depth of characterization, directorial insight, imaginative design and the beauty and power of the orchestral sound. Nevertheless, what audiences will remember most from this Rusalka is Sondra Radvanovsky’s triumph in a non-bel canto role that she completely made her own.    

© Christopher Hoile

Note: This a version of a review that will appear later in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) Sondra Radvanovsky as Rusalka; Sondra Radvanovsky as Rusalka and Pavel Černoch as the Prince; Sondra Radvanovsky as Rusalka (in white); Štefan Kocán as Vodník. © 2019 Michael Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.coc.ca.