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Moonlight Becomes Her

New York
Metropolitan Opera
05/08/2004 -  
Antonin Dvorak: Rusalka
Renee Fleming (Rusalka)
Dolora Zajick (Jezibaba)
Eva Urbanova (Foreign Princess)
Oleg Kulko (Prince)
Willard White (Water Gnome)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Andrew Davis (conductor)

The curtain rises at the Metropolitan Opera. Revealed is a primeval Guenther Schneider-Siemssen glade dominated by a river. Three lovely maidens sing of their timeless happy life but are soon pursued by a gnarled, mildewed old gnome. Much splashing and teasing follow. Of course, we are at the MET’s signature Das Rheingold, settling in for another superb Ring cycle. But why is Andrew Davis on the podium and not Maestro Levine? Oh wait, a glance at the program reveals that this is actually Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak, a child of the Ring through the bloodline Smetana-Dvorak-Janacek.

There is much more to Rusalka than the “Song to the Moon”, but one might be forgiven for not realizing this in modern New York, since Renee Fleming owns this piece and sings it better than anyone has ever done before (not even excepting Jarmila Novotna, who reprised it in the Fred Zinneman film “The Search”). Let us not lose sight of the fact that being able to hear Ms. Fleming perform this particular number at this particular time in her career, with the lush MET orchestra strings behind her (actually in front of her, but she is up in a tree at the time and so has little projection problems) is one of the crowning moments of mid-first decade cultural life. The air occurs about twenty minutes into the first act, reminding this reviewer of the crowd at the old Metropolitan house, that used to leave in droves after the marvelous duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (to keep up the film imagery, used brilliantly by Peter Weir in the poignant “Gallipoli”) at the same juncture in that opening act. But no one left this afternoon and that was a good thing, for we were all treated to a fine piece of diaphanous musical theater considerably less weighty than the Ring.

This entire performance was on the gentle side, the highlights after Renee being the children dressed as frogs, mice and dragon flies (Cunning Little Vixen escapees no doubt) and the incredible, naturalistic character portrayal of Dolora Zajick as Jezibaba (could be my all-time favorite opera name). Her witch not only spits on the stage, but possesses a truly supernatural voice, one that seemed almost too large for the cavernous hall. If there is a downside to Ms. Zajick’s performance, it is that everyone else in the cast suffers rather seriously by contrast. Tenor Oleg Kulko and bass Willard White were barely audible by these high standards. Ms. Fleming was remarkable throughout, her exit after succumbing to the spell notable for its marionette with its strings cut stagger, her heroine always pure of voice and heart. This wonderful voice is husbanded very intelligently by this superb craftswoman. The resultant tone is remarkable not only for what it does, but also for what it does not, project. Never does Fleming strain, but further, she also does not add unwanted weight to her crescendi, the voice always sounding fresh and ingenuous (this is the key to her mastery of the moon song). When one expects volume, one gets it, but there is never the sense of “grand opera” in the pejorative sense; the role, the character, the artist always appear to be youthful and unburdened. One knows intellectually that this necromancy is the result of very hard work, but, just as in the best of illusions, the effort never shows.

As usual, the MET orchestra shone as the finest facet of the diamond, Davis allowing them considerable latitude and breathing room. To accompany this type of lyrical singing, this freedom is ideal. It also allowed the members to relax a bit and that was important, since they still had 5 hours of Goetterdaemmerung after the short dinner break. At least they didn’t have to change the set!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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