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An Enchanted Evening

New York
Metropolitan Opera
03/09/2009 -  and March 12, 14*, 17, 21, 2009
Antonin Dvorák: Rusalka
Renée Fleming (Rusalka), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Prince), Stephanie Blythe (Jezibaba), Christine Goerke (Foreign Princess), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Water Gnome), Kathleen Kim (First Wood Sprite), Brenda Patterson (Second Wood Sprite), Edyta Kulczak (Third Wood Sprite), Kate Lindsay (Kitchen Boy), David Won (Hunter), James Courtney (Gamekeeper)
Metropolitan Opera, Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Günther Schneider-Siemssen (Set Designer), Sylvia Strahammer (Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer), Carmen De Lavallade (Choreographer), Laurie Feldman (Stage Director)

R. Fleming, S. Blythe (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A quintessentially Czech masterpiece has returned to the Metropolitan Opera, where it has been honored by a superb production, first seen here in 1993. Rusalka, the beautiful and tragic water nymph, did not appear out of drain, as she did in last summer’s Salzburg production. Otto Schenk’s imaginative and evocative production conjured up and stayed within the world of the fairy tale, where gnomes and water sprites swim in limpid pools and witches brew magic potions. The Met’s Rusalka was magical in every way.

Jaroslav Kvapil, a thirty-one year old poet, wrote the libretto. He drew from a variety of sources including Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (the primary influence), as well as Fouqué’s Undine, and Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell. Kvapil had shown it to several less distinguished composers and been turned down, but he was far too awed by Dvorák’s reputation to show it to him. It was the director of the National Theater who brought the libretto to Dvorák’s attention, and the composer was captivated. He completed the score in just seven months. Rusalka premiered at the National Theater to great acclaim on March 31, 1901.

The story is simple, but unlike most fairy tales, the ending is a sad one. Rusalka, a water nymph, has fallen in love with a handsome prince. Thus far, she has only been able to caress him as wave washing over his body. She wants to be a woman and be embraced by him. And she wants to have a soul. She seeks out the witch, Jezibaba, who agrees to help her, but warns that she will be unable to speak to the prince and, if she does not find true love, she will be damned and the prince will die. Rusalka drinks the potion and is transformed. The prince falls in love with her and takes her off to his castle. So far so good. But he is fickle, and quickly turns his romantic attentions to the nasty, spiteful foreign princess. Rusalka flees to the forest in despair. Realizing the error of his ways, the prince comes to find her. She warns him that if he kisses her he will die, but he accepts his fate and dies in her arms. Rusalka returns to her home in the water.

The production was mounted for Renée Fleming whose connection with the role is strong and meaningful. Its most famous aria, Song to the Moon was one of two arias that she sang when she won the Met’s National Council Auditions in 1988. Fleming gave an extraordinary touching portrayal, beautifully sung and dramatically fully realized. She brilliantly conveyed the shifting emotional states of her character, from yearning to bewilderment to pain. And she did this when she was mute as well as when she was singing.

Stephanie Blythe was superb. Her singing seemed effortless. She also showed herself to be a master of comic timing and gesture. Her scene with the animals as she brewed up her potion was fun and funny but she also conveyed a sense of menace. Alexsandrs Antonenko, in his Met debut, was an ardent (if inconsistent) lover, singing with unforced power and ringing top notes. Kristinn Sigmundsson, as Rusalka’s father, the water gnome, sang with a wonderful, sonorous voice. His portrayal of a protective and then vengeful father was extremely moving. Christine Goerke used her powerful voice and haughty manner to great effect.

The Met Orchestra, under the baton of the Czech conductor, Jirí Belohlávek, turned in a marvelous performance, giving full expression to the lushness and lyricism of the score. Dvorák’s orchestration is so rich, particularly his writing for woodwinds. Folk-like melodies and rhythms were beautifully realized. The gorgeous dream-like sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen were the perfect visual counterpart for Dvorák’s music. Gil Wechsler’s imaginative and atmospheric lighting, particularly in the moonlit scenes and the supernatural and wonderful tableau of the witch’s brew, added a great deal to the production.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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