Cher Public

Poor wan Rusalka

The winter 2014 final run of the Met’s first/only Rusalka production (a new one is scheduled in a few seasons) seemed both a nod to the theater’s past and a hint of its future. The cast of principals was veteran talent throughout. As Rusalka and Jezibaba, two of the theater’s longest-serving active headliners, both now in late career, brought decades of experience to their roles.

As the Prince, an audience-favorite tenor in his prime made a Met role debut. The versatile and reliable bass-baritone in the role of the Water Gnome also was undertaking his role at the Met for the first time, while the Foreign Princess was in the hands of an important American dramatic soprano making a tardy Met debut, period.  

Activity in the pit was overseen by a young conductor whose impressive annual performances in the seasons since 2009-10 have put his name on the lips of many Met-watchers as potential successor to the theater’s infirm septuagenarian music director. And on the stage, the sets, costumes, and direction were products of a vanished operatic era. In short, nostalgia and excitement came together.

The Otto Schenk Rusalka, sets by the recently deceased Günther Schneider-Siemssen, first was given at the Met when the opera made its belated entry to the repertory in 1993. The production was not even new at that time, having made the European rounds in the prior decade. Like the other Schenk/Schenider-Siemssen Met productions that have been phased out in recent years or are due for their last innings, it is “faithful” in the sense of being literal and elaborately pictorial.

Great care was taken in this HD cinema broadcast to light with care and shoot with discretion set elements that have been through many years of use and storage, and frankly were never intended for the modern high-definition scrutiny.

The production looks as good on the DVD/Blu-ray as a 2014 revival of it could possibly look, and in the long shots, when a camera gives us something like the view we would have from a good seat in the house, it can still be quite lovely (especially in the middle act). We can enjoy the old-school craftsmanship, the Big Book of Opera literalness of it.

I caught the HD transmission in a movie theater and recorded some observations at that time, and I can state without hesitation that the DVD release is much better than the theatrical film was.

There has been more than a little fixing for posterity: artful editing, re-framing, and possibly patching with dress-rehearsal footage has kept from view a good deal of clumsy stage movement (singers looking at their feet as they cautiously navigated the cluttered forest of the outer acts, every millimeter of space taken up with something), lazy reaction shots, one wardrobe malfunction.

Those of us who know what the revival process is like at the Met sympathize with the directors who oversee this sort of antique production and try to get the best out of a cast in limited time (in this case, the task fell to Laurie Feldman). Here, a decent HD has been finessed into a very good DVD/Blu-ray. Perhaps it impresses more as painterly than theatrical, though.

The “stage pictures” often seem just that, almost as if they were planned decades in advance to be stills on some reactionary website to illustrate beauty. Schenk’s blocking in an early scene, for example, has Rusalka and her father communicating from a wide distance. She is poking through a hole to simulate being high in a tree, and he is at ground level; they cannot see each other well, let alone get much of a rapport going.

One good detail in the costuming begs mention: the Prince and the Foreign Princess look like a perfectly matched set. Poor, wan Rusalka clashes with them and with every guest at the Act Two party.

The musical performance is the stronger attraction. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 38 at the time, conducts as though this is anything but the fifth revival of a Met production on the way out. This is strong and vivid work right from the Prelude, all symphonic clarity and glamorous blends.

With a beloved diva singing her final “Song to the Moon” at the Met, he is generous in his indulgence, too much so for my taste; however, in the greater portion of the performance, his accents and shaping are unpredictable, rarely right down the middle, and he is an assertive presence.

Act Two’s brilliant dance music builds to an explosive close, and had there been an applause point there, I cannot imagine Nézet-Séguin and his players would have been denied a healthy round.

Renée Fleming (Rusalka) and Dolora Zajick (Jezibaba) recorded their roles in younger days for a now-classic 1998 Decca set led by Sir Charles Mackerras, and Fleming’s interpretation of the water sprite was also preserved on a 2002 DVD from the Paris Opera. Both ladies are managing more carefully now.

Fleming’s top retains much of its shimmer and luster, and as such this is a congenial late-career assignment for her. Zajick still makes an imposing sound at both extremes of range, only the middle betraying her seniority.

Emily Magee pours her big, ripe, well-schooled tones into the one-dimensional role of the Foreign Princess, kicking up a blaze in the rebuke of the Prince. One hopes the Met, which for too long left her to Europe and Chicago as declining house favorites staked out her repertoire, will bring her back a few times in the remainder of her career.

John Relyea is in his best voice as the Water Gnome, though both costume and blocking hem him in somewhat, and there are a good Kitchen Boy (Julie Boulianne) and an even better Gamekeeper (Slovakian baritone Vladimir Chmelo, idiomatic with the text).

In distinguished company, the Prince of Piotr Beczala seems an audience favorite this day, with reason. He is passionate and high-octane in declamation, a slight husk to his tone actually making lyrical sections more affecting, and although his acting is on the obvious, station-to-station side, there is a sweetness about this fickle, confused Prince. One likes him. The coordination of the three Wood Sprites (each fine in her own right) is less than it could be.

Hostess Susan Graham, always a pleasant personality, conducts a series of remarkably insipid interviews with cast and conductor. This situation should not be blamed on her. These chats have been edited to be even shorter and less interesting than they were in the live broadcast, and Fleming’s mild shade in the direction of Mr. Schenk (she wondered about the logic of the water sprite singing her aria in a tree) has been scrubbed out. Graham towers over all but Relyea, and I at first thought the conductor may be seated.

Dvorák’s irresistible blend of bohemian tunefulness and assured Wagnerian technique has emerged as a favorite of modern directors for the metaphorical possibilities of its story. Most of the existing DVD choices are Regietheater of a more or less extreme fashion, including the stark modern-dress psychodrama of Robert Carsen, the lurid true crime of Martin Kusej, the audacious urban-neon refractions of Stefan Herheim.

All of these are interesting work, and Carsen’s is a personal favorite of mine (and of Fleming, who has talked of being especially proud of it), but there is a place for a beautifully played, strongly cast old-fashioned Rusalka with a storybook forest and palace.

One might wish for a more theatrically alert and lively one than this one, but this is the one we have, and it does have its attractions. After seeing any kind of production of this opera, one can look around and see why it resonates so strongly today, in a time when we hear so much about people yearning to transform and transcend, to realize their dreams and to be accepted.

Perhaps the indelible image here is not of Schneider-Siemssen’s trees, moss, lake, and moon but of Fleming’s heroine, mute and on the sidelines, watching the dancers, envying the lovers, and for all her courage and sacrifice, fated to go unpaired.

  • Wonderfully written, Porgy. Thank you.

  • I enjoyed this on the PBS broadcast. After seeing Kusej’s brutal production, I was happy to see a production with a fairy-tale approach, though I don’t think the Schenk is a great production by any means. But it is pretty and is a nice contrast to what is ultimately a very depressing story with no glimmer of hope. Kusej’s production which is much more rigorous in its execution and has far greater theatrical verve, seemed to me to be taking an already-depressing tale and making it even more depressing that one could imagine. I especially didn’t like the take on the Water Gnome (though it was expertly executed by both singer and director). The whole thing was just unpleasant to experience, despite being also very interesting. (As you can tell, I have conflicted feelings about it).

    One part of Schenk production that made me laugh was when the children come out in their Hallowe’en costumes in their scene with Jezibaba. Rather embarrassing.

    Anyway, one day I’ll track down the Carsen and Herheim productions.

    • Porgy Amor

      I think Carsen’s would be to your liking, kashie. Herheim’s too, probably (they’re both, in their way, very beautiful to look at), but Herheim’s is farther out in what’s done with the story. Schenk is basic arithmetic, Carsen is algebra, Kusej is trig, Herheim is calculus.

      The opera itself has some third-act problems. I consider the first two acts to be almost without fat, but that last act can and usually does drag. All we really “need” at that point is Jezibaba’s proposition near the beginning and the Prince’s appearance at the end, but that would be a very short act. In the middle of this we get lengthy diversions, the nocturnal excursion of the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy, the Wood Nymphs singing about how they’re the shit. That stuff, back to back, has to live or die on the musical appeal and the ingenuity of the staging; the narrative is idling. I do like Diadkova and Hawlata cracking up after they scare the Prince’s help away, and then starting to make out (Carsen).

      Paris ballet sequence, just because.

      • Schenk is basic arithmetic, Carsen is algebra, Kusej is trig, Herheim is calculus.

        Interesting. I loved math in high school but hated trigonometry. So, your analogy is remarkably apt for me.

  • Milly Grazie

    Lovely review, well written and incisive, has made me want to revisit it simply for nostalgia’s sake -- Nostalgia, it ain’t what it used to be !
    Mille Grazie!

  • Rudolf

    @ Porgy Amor
    Thank you for your detailed and personal review of this DVD. I saw the Met’s “Rusalka” in a movie theatre and liked it much. Many years ago, I saw the self-same production in Vienna, alas, with irritating cuts. All your comments with regard to the condition of the scenery and the staging are valid. And yet, I much prefer to see a fairy tale “Rusalka” because it simply fits Dvorak’s music like a glove. Mr. Beczala, in the broadcast, cracked on a high note in (I believe) the last scene. But I am certain this was edited for the DVD release. Ms. Fleming’s comment to Ms. Graham “… and Fleming’s mild shade in the direction of Mr. Schenk (she wondered about the logic of the water sprite singing her aria in a tree) …” made me look into the Czech libretto. And there I find the following description of the opera’s very first scene: A glade at the edge of the lake, surrounded by forests in which, situated on the shore of the lake, stands Jezibaba’s cottage. Moonlit night. On an old willow tree reclining towards the lake, sits Rusalka deep in thought. OK, we may not have seen a willow tree in Schenk’s production but … Rusalka does belong on a tree in this scene. Also, the “water sprite” (= Vodnik) actually is Rusalka’s father. The Czech libretto, translated to English, sometimes refers to Rusalka as water nix or water nymph. In other words, Rusalka is not a name. :-)

    • Porgy Amor

      Mr. Beczala, in the broadcast, cracked on a high note in (I believe) the last scene. But I am certain this was edited for the DVD release.

      ‘Twas. That is the usual practice with these Met releases, and sometimes I have had a sense when I’ve watched a DVD of a singer having a much better afternoon than I knew was the case if I had been there “live.” But Beczala was, for the most part, excellent that day, the one splattered note notwithstanding.

  • javier

    Renee Fleming manages very well in this performance and she is still better than any contemporary Rusalka because she knows how to make you feel the character’s emotions with her voice alone. Other singers and directors rely on just about everything else but the voice and that is why I will forget them all in Rusalka.

    • Porgy Amor

      I think that she certainly has done a great deal for this part and this opera over the years, as the inheritor of Benackova (whom she graciously compliments in what remains of her on-the-quick interview with Graham here). Probably a lot of younger people outside of the Czech Republic have come to Rusalka thanks to her recording and her Met performances, and she has upheld an admirable standard in it.

      That said, while this DVD of the last revival is a nice souvenir, her Rusalka was more interesting to me in the Carsen production. I don’t think of Fleming first as a “risk-taking” singer, but the singing of 12 years earlier had greater freedom, and I found that production more helpful to her in the sense of nailing things down with specificity, putting the acting and the music together. She was about as well directed there as I have ever seen her.

      Of course, there are some who will think it isn’t good because a Water Gnome isn’t “supposed” to have a fedora, or a scene shouldn’t be in a bedroom when the libretto asks for a forest, et cetera.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Lovely review.

    I enjoyed the fairy tale production notwithstanding having been warned in advanced that it was not The Little Mermaid, and so on.

    • Tristan_und

      The Little Mermaid is not the Little Mermaid: in the original story after losing the Prince’s love, she casts herself into the sea and becomes sea-foam as per her original agreement with the Sea Witch.

  • Camille

    Yes, the set is old and tattered and Rusalka is menopausal, yes, yes, yes, and I know you all prefer Carsen and Kusej and Herheim…MAH!

    Once upon a time, in a land far from New YAWK, I saw this beautiful set when it was brand spanking new, with a totally unknown and unheralded singer, Ms Fleming, (October 1990, Seattle, WA). In all my opera going life, it was and still remains one of my top ten memories of an exquisite, lovely musical experience. Mr Heppner at that time sang that same top note which Mr Beczala hesitated and then was lost on (a C in alt) with flying colors and most beautifully, as he did the entire role.

    Yes, it is too late and should have been recorded before and, yes, I know Benackova was first and perhaps more authentic, but Ms Fleming was something unusually lovely back then, so much so, that the memory has been held tight in a specially perfumed drawer all these many years. I am so grateful for that loveliest of Rusalkas, so pure, tender, and unaffected.

    Thank you very much, Porgy Amor, for your considered and considerable opinion. Very elegantly summed up and appreciated. Glad to hear your opinion.

    • Evenhanded

      Well.

      Camille: I, too, attended the Seattle production way back in 1990 when Fleming was just starting to make a splash. I was a young man then, and an opera neophyte, and had never heard the opera nor any of the singers. Dvorak’s music and Fleming’s undeniable gorgeousness made deep impressions on me -- as did the wonderful production. In addition to Fleming and Heppner singing gloriously, Susan Graham appeared in the tiny role of the kitchen boy. I was much more impressed with Richard Van Allan and Ealyn Voss in person than my more jaded ears would judge today on the decrepit old cassettes I made from the radio broadcast, but no matter. That magical evening has stayed strong in my memory and I will happily purchase the DVD under review as a memento of the aged production. Well done, Porgi Amor! Thank you.

      • Porgy Amor

        My pleasure. And you confirmed something for me, inadvertently. Fleming says to Graham something like “You remember, when we were just starting out and we did [the opera] together?” and there’s no follow-up. I was thinking if Graham were in this, especially in the time period specified, it would have to have been as the Kitchen Boy.

        It’s a shame, in the circumstances, that the HD interviews were even lamer and more hasty than they usually are.

      • Camille

        Thank you for remembering, as well.

        Unfortunately, and forever to my chagrin, I erased those cassettes with that performance, and KING-FM will never release a tape, I am supposing. At a certain point I even put that music I’d preserved on my answering machine and whomever called me got treated to the glorious end duet. Everyone loved it and asked “What is that opera? and WHO is that singing?” I told them. And so it went. I saw it on either the day before or the day of Hallowe’en and all the witch stuff and woodland creatures stuff and twinkling lights made a big hit with the audience, too.

        Thanks again for the memories. And yes, Ealynn Voss, who got sick or something and whose career ended sooner rather than later, was impressive and Susie Graham was a mighty tall Kitchen Boy. A wonderful production and one of the reasons I am ALWAYS on the lookout at regional operas for one just never, ever knows what gem may turn up!

  • Greg.Freed

    Thanks for this, Porgy. Spot on. The previous run with Fleming and Antonenko is one of my fondest Met memories.

  • antikitschychick

    wonderful review Porgy :-). I too saw the HD of this, but not in the theaters. I watched it much later online since I didn’t think I’d like it too much but musically it was splendid as you say. I think it was you yourself that encouraged me to watch it and for that I thank you as well. The singing was lovely and this was the first performance I saw of Piotr Beczala that I really liked. I’d really like to watch the newer productions by Kusej and Herheim next. I’ve watched clips of Kristine Opolais singing the Song to the Moon in one f those two productions; it looks interesting and she sounds pretty good.

    OT: the short rehearsal clip of Trovatore from the Met featuring Dima, AN and YLee looks great. Am super excited that I’ll get to see/hear it live next weekend! Eeep!

    • Porgy Amor

      Opolais is Kusej’s Rusalka, opposite Klaus Florian Vogt’s Prince and Günther Groissböck’s (superb, bravely portrayed) Water Gnome. She’s always captivating on the stage, and is so here, although I’m finding that I enjoy her much less when I choose to or am forced to focus on her singing alone (for example, her parts on Kaufmann’s new Puccini album). Still…she makes no bones in her interview on the Rusalka DVD about considering herself an actress as much as a singer, and she’s a fine one.

      I remember when Villazón had his meltdown in the Met Lucia in ’09, one of Parterre’s sister sites commenting on the tenors who were pressed into service in the later performances before the HD. The author described Beczala as a solid performer who hadn’t become a star and, at his age at that time, was unlikely to become one. He disproved that assessment, didn’t he? He’s gone from strength to strength in the years since, and he still very ably embodies these youthful tenor roles despite being closer to 50 than to 40. I heard him as Camille in an older Merry Widow recently and his voice seemingly hasn’t aged at all.

      Have you seen Carsen’s Rusalka?

      • antikitschychick

        I saw parts of the Carsen production a few years ago but never finished watching it. I’m pretty sure it’s on Youtube so will look for it and finish it when I can. From what I recall it’s a very stylish production without ever being kitschy or banal and the singing is great as well. I agree about your observations regarding Opolais and Beczala. “Solid performer” is probably the best way to describe him. He’s also a consummate professional and indeed very resilient. Unfortunately I’ve just never really been captivated by the performances I’ve seen of him (never live mind you). He has a nice timbre, but to me his singing lacks distinctiveness, or a certain ‘spark’ if you will and the acting leaves much to be desired imho. But I’ve definitely grown to appreciate his singing in certain roles, the Prince definitely being one of them. I’d also like to hear him sing Radames actually. I think that role would suit him really well dramatically because it’s role that requires a lot of earnest nobility so to speak.

        • Porgy Amor

          Yes, last I looked, the Carsen was there to be seen for free (unless the copyright cops have gotten to it), and I think you sum it up well. The late Larin is not my favorite Prince, but he’s fine, and the others more than that.

          I think that Yannick Nézet-Séguin (in the Met performance) has an idea that the dance music is about sex. There’s nothing sexy about what’s happening on the stage in the Schenk production at that point, but boy, is it in the orchestra. Poor, wan Rusalka, unable to “dance.”

        • Lohenfal

          Anti, Beczala sounds much better in person than he does on the radio or Internet. He’s one of those singers who has to be experienced in the house. The Edgardo he did in 2009 opposite Netrebko was quite spectacular, as Porgy states. I had never seen him before that and wondered why he wasn’t considered a star. The abundance of HD moviecasts and Sirius broadcasts, created by Gelb, has obscured the fact that buying a ticket to the Met is really the best way to hear these singers. The broadcasts should be considered as worthy alternatives when we can’t actually be there.

          • antikitschychick

            I would imagine you’re right Lohenfal, which is why I try to keep an open mind about most performers, and I hope I can catch him in some opera in the near future at the Met. The broadcasts certainly were worthy alternatives for me in the past but I’ve made it a point to attend as many live shows as I can this season. It’s just that since I can’t go as much as I’d like I have to prioritize. I’ll see if I can catch Rigoletto in December since I’d like to hear Nadine Sierra as well.