Cher Public

Sleeping with the fishes

With a cast of stellar singers and maladroit direction by Mary Zimmerman, Dvorák’s Rusalka debuts in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera. The libretto, by Jaroslav Kvapil (based upon the fairy tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué) is probably most recognizable as an iteration of The Little Mermaid, a folktale made famous by Hans Christian Andersen in the 19th century, and the wonderful world of Disney in the 20th.  

The plot, rather cruel in its measured progress towards tragedy, beguiles just as it withholds emotional closure. Rusalka, which means “water spirit” in Slavic, longs for a human prince. In an effort to secure his affection, she has the witch Jezibaba transform her into a biped, complete with a human soul. However, the physical conversion comes with a price: Rusalka’s voice is silent on human ears, and she must secure the unwavering affection of the prince, or else the two of them will be forever damned.

Kristine Opolais’ naturally cool persona is well suited to the role of the water nymph. Docile and wan, her Rusalka is vocally steady, measured and clear, though her voice is willing to risk abandon during moments of aching ambition and desperation. She also does well during the second act, where much of her work requires silent pantomime, conveying the character’s growing anxiety and lack of agency.

Brandon Jovanovich’s considerable tenor is robust in the role of the Prince, Rusalka’s capricious suitor. His instrument, with its slightly baritonal shade, showed its wear during the second act. However, he rallied for some rather tender moments near the end of the opera, when his character experies in Rusalka’s icy arms.

Jamie Barton, a recent winner of the Beverly Sills Artist Award, is a delightfully campy villain as the witch Jezibaba. Her meaty mezzo is wonderfully deployed, especially during the transformation set piece, in which Zimmerman likens Rusalka’s metamorphosis to a surgical intervention. The only drawback is the role’s brevity in a rather long evening, leaving the audience craving more of Barton’s superlative work.

In an altogether different sense, it’s refreshing to see an indelicate Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess, who brings over-the-top verve and a blustery, ill-managed voice to the role. She stomps about the stage wearing wide panniers and a diadem, reveling in her nasty persona. While some might find it distasteful, she has a delicious, full-throttled approach to the role that I find both unnerving and exciting.

As Vodnik the water gnome, Rusalka’s father, the incomparable Eric Owens laments his daughter’s fate with a secure bass-baritone that resonates with plangent grief. His relationship to his daughter is one of the more somber, complicated, and effective aspects of the opera’s plot. And Owens, as in much of his work at the Met, brings a regal solemnity to the proceedings.

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Met orchestra with bombast, leading the ensemble through the silvery score with immoderate dynamics. While this overly muscular approach toughens the drama’s texture, it also overbears the more shimmering and intangible elements that invoke Rusalka’s demeanor.

With a color palette of contrasting green and orange, Zimmerman seems to draw inspiration from a wide array of references, invoking the art of Nicolas Poussin, ancient medical texts, and the imagery of mid-twentieth century film: the water nymphs that prance around Rusalka’s lake resemble members of the Lullaby League, while Vodnik is something of a cross between the Wizard of Oz and the creature from the black lagoon, with a long green coat and webbed hands.

As in her previous endeavors at the Met, Zimmerman’s direction veers off into unexplainable territory, mixing textures and references with little cohesive binding, though some of her tableaus are interesting in their arbitrary zaniness. It’s a frustrating experience, in that Zimmerman fails to capitalize on the fascinating material—a twisted, unyielding lens through which one can spin all manner of stagecraft. In short, Zimmerman’s production is a series of amusing, though ultimately disappointing attempts at originality.

It is certainly a shame, in that Dvorák’s opera is an unusually psychopathic text, providing ample opportunity to explore dark themes of sexuality, violence, and dread. However, missed opportunities such as this seem to abound at the Metropolitan Opera, especially under Zimmerman’s direction. It’s difficult to see why she is invited to work at the Met so regularly, especially when time after time she squanders the talent of a game cast and an expert orchestra.

Photos by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

[Our Own JJ’s review of this production may be found on the website of the Observer.]

  • steveac10

    Of course the paper of record has a different take. Praising Zimmerman, Elder and Opalais to the skies using full sentences, while relegating the true star of the evening (Barton) to a stereotypical Tommasinian one word review. In this case “powerhouse”.

  • brooklyndivo

    First, I’d like to say James has his view and then there are others, which does not make what he says correct. As a former opera singer, I now really enjoy going to the opera and seeing operas. Has James or any one on this blog ever sang a note on the opera stage or done an opera? For one who has, let me tell you it’s hard work. The voice is great at time and other times you wonder what’s happening or can I just get through the evening. You will not sing great every performance but will have great moments in an opera that’s the nature of the voice. Those like James are so ready to criticize productions and singers are wrong. James to be a critic you must not favor singers as you do. Anna is a great singers at moments but she is not the greatest out there now. She has done well but there are flaws you seem not or cannot see.

    Opalais was great in this role. I was so impressed by her command of the language and phrasing of the music. The voice was solid from bottom to top filling the house with ease. The same can be said for all the principals especially Brandon’s tenor was easily produced with color and tones for days. Barton, Dalymon and Eric were great in their roles as well.

    I thought everything about the about from the sets and costumes were great..

    Objectively James you cannot write because you are one bitter person. Once you lose your ego you will be able to write objectively.

    • brooklyndivo

      I was at this performance up close and saw everything , so I really don’t know what James are any of the other people on the post were hearing as it was great.

      • PCally

        What on earth are you talking about? In the first place the above review has nice things to say about literally everything other than the production. Nothing bitter about it. There has to be a way of disagreeing without calling the author bitter. Secondly just about about everything in your own review is purely subjective. I was also there and frankly don’t share your feelings. Your having actually sung onstage makes you only marginally more of an expert on what someone else’s voice sounded like to people in the audience.

        • grimoaldo2

          It seems to me that brooklyndivo thinks PCJ and JJ are the same person.
          Yes, there would not be much point in reviewing an opera performance if the only acceptable reaction is “jolly good show! singing opera is really really hard, you know!”

          • berkeleygirl

            I’m a former opera singer myself and deem that the reason that I’m one of the toughest critics around!

            • Stephen Costello

              As an opera singer myself I would love to see your videos!!!!

        • Bill

          I posted some notes on the premiere performance of this Rusalka earlier and based upon what I have read here, the reviews are all over the place, the NY Times drooling in superlatives, the Observer very disappointed and the above review mostly positive toward the singing whereas I
          was a bit more critical. I am not a musician but have seen this particular opera 38 times
          and at least on premiere night, the standard
          to which I have been accustomed both musically and regarding the sets, staging, dancing (quite high actually) was certainly not at the highest level -- almost more a performance one might expect in the provinces rather than one of the top tier
          of international opera houses. I think also that the short lived and slightly tepid applause of some 4 minutes meant that the
          audience on premiere night was not totally enraptured as it had been in previous
          performances of Rusalka at the Met (or elsewhere). True, there was no booing
          of the production team but also the singers each only had one solo bow and one could tell the audience was not particularly
          enthralled as they were when Benackova,
          in the title role, first introduced the opera to the Met or when Fleming, in one of her best assumptions of a role, later sang it. I shall go again to one or more subsequent performances as I find Rusalka one of the most endearing operas in the repertoire. Yet with this cast and particularly with this production (neither traditional nor beautiful as the Schenk production had been nor
          particularly edgy or modern as often Rusalka is now presented in Europe in Regie productions of this fairy tale opera) Rusalka may not reappear at the Met in the next five seasons for lack of public enthusiasm . It is a pity as Dvorak’s orchestration is so richly splendid and all 5 of the major roles present an opportunity for each singer to shine and illustrate the beauty of his/her individual voice. Plus just to mention it, though there are many attractive sopranos currently now essaying the title role (Stoyanova, Bezsmertna, Nylund, also several in Prague among others) , Anna Netrebko, if she wanted to do Rusalka, would be among them -- it could be a perfect vocal fit.

          • PCally

            Though my tastes don’t always align with bills, I’m in almost in complete agreement with him on this, though I liked Barton considerably more than he did (better than zaijck imo in this role). Everyone was capable and I imagine they’ll all settle a bit into the run. But with the exception of Barton none of those voices registered as particularly beautiful or memorable and while Opolais sounded much better here then as manon, the sound is monochromatic and she doesn’t do much with the music or the text to make up for that imo. The orchestra (the real star of this opera imo) was lifeless and turgid and the production is tacky looking and otherwise uninspired. I’m no fan of the previous production but what’s the point of replacing one production with a production more or less similar in concept only tackier

          • Leontiny

            thank you

        • “There has to be a way of disagreeing without calling the author bitter.” I keep a blog about performances I go to, and funnily enough I’ve got used to being called “bitter” by people who don’t agree with what I write. Bitter is in fact one of the less unpleasant terms.

      • Donna Annina

        Criticism derives from the Greek word meaning “to judge.” The above review and others online or in print do exactly that and whether or not I agree with all or none, the critics do a good job documenting their judgments. We listened to the opening night broadcast and were underwhelmed by Elder’s reading of this marvelous score. Jovanovich sounded strained and pushing it until the end and Owens came off as woofy in spots. Jamie Barton alone knocked it out of the park. But that’s my opinion. And until I see the HD, I’m sticking to it.

    • Cameron Kelsall

      I’m impressed by your ability to pack so many fallacious arguments into four rather brief paragraphs.

    • quoth the maven

      So then, the whole idea of writing a review of an operatic performance
      is inherently unsound, since putting on operas is “hard work” and
      therefor not subject to criticism? The argument does rather a disservice
      to readers who might want an idea of what actually happened in a given

    • Armerjacquino

      “I thought everything about the about from the sets and costumes were great..”

      “Objectively James you cannot write”


    • laddie

      “As a former opera singer” -- dearie, you’re just one of the large number of “former opera singer(s)” that populate this site. JJ is spot on in his review. Patrick, I also enjoyed your review as well. Thank you!

    • spiderman

      Would that also mean (consequently) that we can’t critizise the president of the USA because we all (most probably; what do I know!) have never been president of the USA?

    • I’m all in favour of differing opinions but I’m always wary of the “have you done it yourself?” argument. No, I have no plans of becoming a practitioner of every art form on which I given an opinion.

      • rapt

        I agree. I think, too, that “but they worked so hard” also fails as an argument. In my own field (writing), I know that a lot of hard work can go into a less-than-successful final product (sometimes seems as if the hardest work is the least compensated by good results!). In fact, I think the unpredictability of results is one of the qualities of an art form that keeps the artist as hooked as the audience--the element that is beyond one’s control exerts its own fascination. I think Joan Sutherland was acknowledging that in speaking of “the voice” (i.e., her own) as something separate from herself. I suspect that those professional singers who survive harsh criticism and unhappy performances recognize this--and that impugning (to use the US Senate majority leader’s words) the performance is not to impugn the singer’s gifts and dedication. (N.B. Since we’re being so frank about our professional identities, and since it’s the Internet, I suppose I should admit that I am not only a writer, but also a dog.)

  • berkeleygirl

    After seeing Jovanovich in Les Troyens, here in Chicago, it should be a capital crime to hide his thighs under a long coat.

  • Leontiny

    Like several others on this thread I’ve seen many productions of this opera, a work whose beauties reveal themselves gradually and gently, much like Gounod’s writing does for me. It’s lyrical, and its sweetness deepens and darkens. I have yet to see this production, and will in HD, but the broadcast was very disappointing. The orchestra seemed out of sorts, the conducting was dreadful. Turgid (thank you JJ), and when the singers needed support, absent. Only Barton had any richness, resonance, and word pointing. I’m always willing to fault the mic’ing and mixing for things like the tinny grating tone of Opolais, but there was no bloom, no float, no beauty in the metal, and she was flat so often that my teeth were grinding. Jovanovich seemed involved in the text, but the sound was effortful and off-putting. He sounded genuinely involved with her at the end. I happen to love Eric Owens, but he sure doesn’t come across well in a recording. One of those monotone basses who seems to have only one note, and hasn’t Dalayman voiced better days? Perhaps her acting will distract from the lack of vocal control. I felt sorry for her, not the usual reaction to the Princess. I was surprised there was no booing. I know Fleming is often derided here, but that Carsen/Levine production in Paris had some mighty fine singing, and listening to the DVD without visuals last night I heard a great deal more beauty and understanding of the music than I did in the Met broadcast.

    • Porgy Amor

      a work whose beauties reveal themselves gradually and gently

      When I was watching the performances for the recent two-part piece here, the final scene with Rusalka and the Prince seemed more beautiful and nearer to perfect to me every time. Of course I mean the actual music for the tenor and soprano (for which we have waited a long time by then), but even more so what follows, from the Goblin’s warning to the end. “Rusalka’s longing” one last time as a funeral march; Rusalka’s last words (“Because you loved…”); the final appearance of the repeated four-note “fate” motif, inexorable, grand; then when everything else has fallen away, in the brass, quietly and nobly, “Prince.”

      There was a time when I thought Dvorák was a very great composer but that his best-known opera was not at the level of, say, Symphony No. 7 or the Cello Concerto. Now I do, and I want to spend more time with his other operas, such as Dimitrij, Armida and The Devil and Kate.