Water, logged

So, how excited are you to read another piece about the Mary Zimmerman Rusalka? And to read even more from me about Dvorák’s Rusalka

One of the reasons I have not written about more of the Met HDs (I reviewed one in 2015) is that HD is a lonely, tardy beat. By the time the Met’s productions get beamed to screens out here in flyover country, they are ground very well covered, especially on an enthusiast’s site such as parterre box. We hear about the production in advance and speculate about how good or bad it will be, the production opens, early reactions appear in comments, the official reviews trickle in over a few days, pro and con arguments rage for a while, and by HD time there are fresher topics. Usually I feel there is little to add. If I am to take a crack at the production, I would rather wait for a home video release.

This time, however, the notion had appeal as a pendant to the two-part Rusalka survey linked above. I emptied my mind of things heard and read about the production, gave Ms. Zimmerman, Maestro Mark Elder, and the singers clean slates for any bad or good deeds they have done in the past, and spent a Saturday afternoon in the dark with Dvorák’s score, the smell of popcorn in the air.

Rusalka is Ms. Zimmerman’s fourth Met production. Her 2007 debut, a mildly interventionist Victorian ghost story take on Lucia di Lammermoor, received mixed reviews, and her followups of Sonnambula and Armida were greeted with outright hostility. In interviews prior to the opening of Rusalka, she was at pains to emphasize that her Rusalka would be by the book (“I’m not putting it in Paris, and [Rusalka’s] not a prostitute or anything like that”), a fairy-tale treatment of Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto.

I did wonder if this were a case of a director getting her ears pinned back a couple times, drawing a conclusion about “what the (opera) public wants,” and trying for a popular hit. However, I take Ms. Zimmerman at her word that she gives each piece she stages individual consideration and arrives at the idea that makes sense to her. Rusalka does not have to be explicitly allegorical and does not need to be in modern dress, although great productions have gone that way. The parameters of fantasy/”fairy tale” leave plenty of room for creativity. Most of us have seen a broad range of imaginative Zauberflötes, for example, which created enchanted worlds very different from one another.

In the event, I found little enchantment in the world Ms. Zimmerman and her design team created for Rusalka. The best that can be said is that this looks less dated and can be more brightly lit than what it replaced, the 1987 Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production the Met acquired and staged from 1993 through 2014.

Colorful sets (Daniel Ostling) and costumes (Mara Blumenfeld) place us in a stylized version of some 18th-century European land. The Prince has liveried servants in powdered wigs, and the human characters wear breeches and panniers. Inhuman characters (Water Goblin, Wood Nymphs, Jezibaba) are in would-be outrageous camp costumes bearing traces of the same period. The Water Goblin resembles a frog, but with a royal robe and crown. Jezibaba’s high-necked dress is covered with spider webs. Some of the Nymphs (several mute ones fill out the ranks) wear panniers too, made of moss and flowers. The pre-transformation Rusalka’s long gown is appliquéd with lily pads, and she is unflatteringly bewigged with a flaxen/aquamarine ombre crimp.

Ms. Zimmerman began with an experienced operatic cast and material full of emotion and ambiguity; I wish she had made more of the opportunity. The direction and design conspire for a pop-up-book harmlessness that keeps the material safely silly. No one will leave the theater troubled in the least, except for those of us who take Rusalka seriously.

I did find astute the decision to have the Prince shown “hunting” for Rusalka in each act, even the second act. An adjustment of Mr. Ostling’s set, following the Act Two Gamekeeper/Turnspit scene, allows us to see the Prince chasing Rusalka through rooms of the palace before catching up to her. I also liked Rusalka donning the dead Prince’s discarded robe (timed to the orchestra’s last word, the “Prince” motif from dignified brass) and wandering off into the moonlight, a somber wraith, as the lights dim. The polonaise is staged conventionally to dramatize Rusalka’s exclusion and uncertainty, but Austin McCormick‘s choreography imaginatively bridges eras, from the formality of a more decorous time to modernity.

This is not much over three hours, and other novel touches go for little. Jezibaba’s transformation of Rusalka takes place on an operating table behind a curtain, with a half-human cat, rat and crow assisting. The Water Goblin is frailer than in most productions, dependent on the Nymphs to lay out lily pads for his steps. His visit to the Prince’s palace is a dehydrating experience, and Rusalka must dab him with water from a Lucite bucket. When the Goblin returns to curse the Prince, he enters from a convenient downpour and thus is restored to full strength.

On the whole, it is fitful, shallow work, seeming neither deeply felt nor strongly guided, a typical result when a competent director from another branch of theater tries opera. We have been here before at the Peter Gelb Met, too often.

An outstanding performance from conductor and cast might have pushed disappointment about the production into the margins. Elder clearly loves this score and has long experience with it, but his reading is not inspired work. An ineffectual plod through the prelude proves representative–accents are softened, contrasts downplayed, and musical developments do not reach their potential. Although Elder had a better orchestra this time around, the result is similar to the performance on his English National Opera DVD of 30 years ago: an understated approach that deprives the music of color, life, momentum. A generalized pallor hangs over each scene.

Kristine Opolais was singing her first Met performances of the role that established her as an international star in 2010. On the movie screen or in house, at least, she makes a stronger effect than she has in other recent roles of my experience with her (Cio-Cio San, Mimì, Manon Lescaut, the Boito Margherita). She has a cool, studied quality that can be distancing in Italian heroines who beg for more direct appeal, but is well suited to the strange Rusalka.

Opolais fills her stage work with expressive detail, and if this occasionally comes off as calculated, it does show a grasp of character and situation. She has thought the role through. From the vocal standpoint, she benefits from her experience. I continue to have my technical reservations, but she contrives her way around difficulties and makes an honest effort to serve the music and to deliver the messages it carries. On this date, the tone sounded somewhat rejuvenated from the opening-night stream earlier this month. It was perhaps the best result one could have hoped for with a less than voluptuous sound in a beautiful-voice role.

Katarina Dalayman‘s visits to the Met have been exclusively in Wagner operas following a 2006 Wozzeck. Neither the Czech words nor the tessitura of the Foreign Princess sounded comfortable for her, and the Princess’s two appearances did not register strongly. The role is brief and one-note, but others have done more with it.

Jamie Barton‘s Jezibaba boasted the freshest, most imposing and luxurious voice of any of these principals, and obviously enjoyed her opportunities to cackle and cavort. Certainly, there is nothing to criticize in the way Jezibaba’s music was delivered. If I did not find this performance quite the triumph that has been widely written up, it may be because I felt Barton needed a stronger directorial hand. There is a fine line between enthusiasm and crassness, and this landed on the wrong side of it.

Brandon Jovanovich‘s Prince seems still a work in progress. The Montana-born tenor has a promising sound for this role, dark and robust, but he lacks a consistent legato. The role of the Prince grows higher as the evening progresses, and Jovanovich, a “middle voice” tenor who has had successes in operas of Beethoven and Wagner, managed cautiously in the final scene, sliding up to a terrifying high C. He fared no better than anyone else under Ms. Zimmerman’s direction, with a basic storybook-hero presence rather than a personality.

Eric Owens is a singer one wants to think well of, and gravitas, or “nobility” if you like, comes easily to him. The sound has lost evenness and integrity since his acclaimed Alberich for this theater at the dawn of the decade. Much of his Water Goblin was undermined by unsteady tone and a craggier quality than a 46-year-old bass-baritone might be expected to have. Always a sincere performer, he was affecting in the Act Two aria even so.

Alan Opie and Daniela Mack neither added nor detracted much as Gamekeeper and Turnspit, respectively. Opie sounded under the weather (as approximately half of the Met’s roster has sounded this winter) and was briefly out of rhythm with Elder and orchestra. Hyesang Park made a lovely First Nymph.

Most of the seats at my movie theater were filled, not the case for Roméo et Juliette last month. The friend who accompanied me to this, who had gone in with no knowledge of Rusalka other than familiarity with the story from other adaptations, enjoyed the opera but said as we were leaving, “That was very literal.” I joked to La Cieca that we should just run those four words under a picture of Rusalka, the Goblin, and the Lucite water bucket. Shortest Porgy Amor review ever.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani handled his HD hosting debut well, reading prepared copy smoothly and keeping interviews on track and within time limits. The highlight of the afternoon, an annihilating one relative to the performance it accompanied, was an intermission preview of a forthcoming Susan Froemke documentary in observance of the Met’s 50 years at Lincoln Center. In the film excerpt, Leontyne Price, interviewed shortly before her 90th birthday, recalled the troubled world-premiere production of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra that opened the new house.

Presented with a picture of herself and Barber, the legendary soprano cried, “Oh, Sam!” and spoke of her friend with great emotion. The interview was intercut with 1966 material I had not known existed: footage of a younger Price rehearsing Cleopatra, also of then-GM Rudolf Bing and director Franco Zeffirelli. The 89-year-old Price sang a couple lines of “Give me my robe,” still with beautiful tone, and this was followed by the singer performing the aria on stage in her glorious prime. The chills were more than worth the price of admission. Even someone who loves Dvorák’s opera as much as I do found it difficult to get back into the plot of Rusalka.

The Rusalka HD will repeat in participating theaters on Wednesday, March 1; variation is at local discretion. One remaining performance of the Zimmerman Rusalka is scheduled at the Met the following night, Thursday, March 2.

Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera