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.]