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.