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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Opera Review: Fishing in the Dark

The Metropolitan Opera hooks a new Rusalka.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
All dried out: Kristin Opolais (top) is the mermaid and Brandon Jovanovich is the Prince in the Met's new Rusalka.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Rusalka, adding the Dvořák fairy-tale opera to the long list of repertory works receiving new productions under the stewardship of general manager Peter Gelb. This new production is the fourth by director Mary Zimmerman, whose past stagings have ranged from innovative (Lucia di Lammermoor) to unwatchable claptrap (Armida). The show is centered around Kristine Opolais, inheriting the swim fins of Renée Fleming in the title role: a mermaid whose love for a handsome prince leads her to become fully human.

On the surface, Ms. Opolais appears to be the right singer for Rusalka, a lyric soprano with hints of spinto and a good command of the opera's Czech text. However, this is a long and difficult sing over four hours of Wagnerian orchestration. At Monday night's performance, she sang the Song of the Moon (the opera's Act I showstopper) with arching phrases, but sounded overwhelmed by the more taxing music later in the long act. Despite being mute for the second act, she sounded strained, although some lovely, sculpted phrases made the difficult final scene work.

This show may be a coming-out party for Brandon Jovanovich, a handsome, energetic tenor with bright tone and some robustness in his instrument. His character is a prince out of the Shrek films, callow and vain, ready to drop Rusalka quickly. In this production, the Prince's death was framed not as tragedy but as punishment for his sins, as he succumbs to Rusalka's fatal kiss in the last scene. Despite one difficult moment, this was a fine, heroic performance.

Jamie Barton was an excellent fit for the role of the witch Jezibaba, who here alters Rusalka with help from a cabinet of medical horrors and a trio of animal familiars (cat, raven and rat) played by dancers in enormous masks. Although making the witch a modern steampunk was a neat idea, one felt that Ms. Zimmerman was only paying lip service to that aesthetic where it could have been much funnier had the show gone further. Her big scenes in Act I and III were powerfully sung, drowning out the little mermaid with her rich pliant instrument. She had enough gas for the big finish in Act III, leaving the audience stunned.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens is one of the legitimate stars of the 21st century Met. His performance as the Water Goblin was firm and resonant, playing this difficult character as a stern and yet loving figure. It helped that this director's conception allowed the singer to move out of his usual trapdoor spot on the stage, making him a much more powerful and potent figure. Katherine Dalayman provided Wagner-sized support in the short role of the Foreign Princess. Alan Opie and Daniela Mack supplied comic relief as the Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy, their arrival on stage always getting a laugh from the house.

As for the production, designed by Daniel Ostling with an eye toward filmability by Mr. Gelb's Live in HD team, it is a mixed bag of too-familiar ideas. The transformation of a lush Act I wilderness into an Act III polluted wasteland has been done so many times (usually in Parsifal or Tristan und Isolde that it has become tired. Ditto for the boxes-within-boxes set, which twists and turns for Act III. It's trying to look deconstructed but it merely appears untidy. Act II, with its whirling dancers re-enacting the Kama Sutra (or 50 Shades of Grey?) did not enchant.

This score requires a conductor with one foot in the Wagnerian idiom and the other in the music of Bohemia and Eastern Europe. Happily, Sir Mark Elder is both, with long experience in leading the Ring Cycle and the works of Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. He took a slow, broad approach to the score, bringing out dynamic and detail but sometimes stretching his singers to their absolute limit. Conductor and orchestra seemed to be having more fun with the banal Viennese waltz rhythms of the second act, although the sound of dancers' heels clomping on wooden boards spoiled the effect. The close was radiant, with the orchestra seeming to evaporate in the final bars. Here, there was magic at last.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.