When Kristine Opolais turns her gaze moonward in Mary Zimmerman‘s new Rusalka on Thursday, Dvorák’s 1901 opera will be receiving just its second Met production. Ms. Opolais joins an exclusive club. The Met’s only prior Rusalkas have been Renée Fleming (18 performances), Gabriela Benacková (8) and Gwynne Geyer (one, and immortality as an opera trivia stumper).  

While some once-popular Met operas have fallen into neglect in the past quarter century, Rusalka has returned regularly since its 1993 premiere. This reflects both the title role’s favor with a reigning house diva of the period and an upturn in the opera’s fortunes worldwide. Dvorák’s centrality in symphonic and chamber repertoire, and the characteristic nature of this score, may make it surprising that the rest of the world was slow to see virtues Czechoslovakia recognized immediately.

Perhaps, as sometimes is the case in music and theater, Rusalka had to wait for its time to come. Its worldwide popularity solidified in an era when love and intimacy carried new dangers. I wonder if operagoers of the 1980s and early 1990s, losing friends and treasured artists every year, fearing for their own lives, found special poignancy in the words of Rusalka and the Prince. “I may once have been your beloved, but now I can only bring you death.” “This world is already lost to me. Let me die of your kisses.”

Today the opera has a different contemporary resonance. Rusalka desires and pursues a fundamental transformation, knowing it will come at the cost of estrangement from family. She seeks acceptance and love in her new identity but encounters suspicion, mockery and rejection. New acquaintances describe her with the Czech equivalents of “creepy” and “strange creature.” Most of us in the second decade of the 21st century know or know of someone who has had a similar journey, if we have not lived it ourselves.

Dvorák wrote in an 1889 letter to Tchaikovsky: “I joyfully confess that your opera made a big and profound impression on me, precisely of the kind that I always expect from a true work of art. I do not hesitate to say that not one of your compositions has pleased me so much as Onegin has. […] When I am at the theatre [during Onegin] I feel myself transported into another world.”

Just as Dvorák’s mature symphonies disclose the influence of his friend Brahms, so does Rusalka carry hints of Tchaikovsky. The Prince’s lyrical outpouring at the close of Act One sounds like Gherman in amorous cry, and Act Two’s polonaise evokes the dances of Onegin.

An even stronger influence on Rusalka was, of course, Wagner. Few composers have so successfully applied Wagnerian techniques to their own idiom as Dvorák did here. This continuous music, dense with leitmotifs and chromatic harmonies, largely eschews vocal ensemble. Sometimes we may think of Lohengrin, sometimes the Ring operas, with the three Wood Nymphs being unmistakable musical cousins to the Rheinmaidens. And is that a splash of Tristan in the ecstatic transformation of the four-note “fate” motif for Act Three’s fateful kiss?

The prelude strings together a few of the motifs that will return over and over, and through them tells the story in microcosm. The Water Goblin’s realm is quietly evoked at the start, followed by the haunting motif of Rusalka’s longing. Each of these themes then is repeated, the latter one in elaborated form.

At the prelude’s halfway point, the Prince’s motif enters. This breach seems to agitate the Water Goblin (or nature itself?) and to excite Rusalka, whose longing soars into a new octave–what had been melancholic is now urgent, febrile. The conflict reaches an explosive climax, “Rusalka’s longing” echoes plaintively (truncated), and we close on an important new motif: descending semitones of foreboding and futility–damnation.

Rusalka was, like Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, a collaboration between a revered master late in life and a much younger but strong-minded librettist. Jaroslav Kvapil drew from several sources in his poetic recasting of the undine myth, and shopped his finished libretto around to several musical contacts until he was introduced to the man perfect to set it. Indeed, a more sinister “Vodnik” (Water Goblin) had been the subject of Dvorák’s 1896 symphonic poem of that title.

The opera that Dvorák and Kvapil created together is both rich in immediate appeal and worthy of prolonged study. Not all of this score’s secrets are given up at first, and in watching and listening to six filmed performances from the last 40 years, I continued to uncover those secrets. It is an opera as beautiful and strange as its otherworldly heroine.

For a time, there was a vogue for opera films in which actors stood in for prerecorded singers, and Moravian director Petr Weigl made several of them. His 1977 Rusalka

the opera in settings of picturesque realism. Every scene was shot outdoors, but for a few inserts in studio-simulated outdoors. We see real trees, flowers and grass, a real lake and bridge, several horses. The hems of beautiful gowns are dragged on the ground and never show a spot. Rusalka and the Prince look like storybook young lovers…from a ’70s television show’s approximation of some distant period.

Some “magical” visual effects have not aged well, but this is competent filmmaking with basic cinematic grammar, heavy on alternating medium close-ups of the “singing” character and the listening one. Neither actors nor singers are ideally served. The singers are denied their physical presence; the actors are denied their voices and encouraged toward understated acting, not the vivid theatricality of silent films.

These are accomplished Czech actors, but what they do will not be a revelation to a viewer who has seen good actors on the operatic stage. The Rusalka actress (Magda Vásáryová) clasps her hands, lowers her eyes, and looks forlorn for Papa Goblin. The singer voicing her would have done about as well, if less prettily.

About a half hour is excised from the score. The narrative keeps its shape, but it is a shame to lose a note with this idiomatic cast and conductor. The soundtrack has the appeal of an Italian verismo opera from a vintage cast, Bolshoi Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky from the mid-20th century, or French Romantic arias from early recording days.

When such music is embraced by the world and becomes everyone’s, on one hand it is to be celebrated, but something gets diluted. There is a persuasive freedom in singing and playing, a “rightness” in the musical argument, not duplicated on any of the later DVDs. Much credit goes to conductor Libor Pesek, who whisks motifs into the blend like a master chef, leading the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

Only Gabriela Benacková, bright-toned and graceful of phrase, and the young, fresh Peter Dvorsky are widely known internationally, but everyone is stylish and authoritative. Ondrej Malachovský had been a Water Goblin of great warmth and forbearance in an earlier film beyond my scope, and he remains such. His esteemed Rusalka of 1963, Milada Subrtová, had aged into Foreign Princess duty.

There is nothing domesticated about Libuse Márová‘s spicy Jezibaba. Her actress counterpart has a ratty bouffant, a painted white face, and flowing robes, looking like a backwoods Suzuki, and the voice makes a good match.

A German dub also circulates, with a cast including Lilian Sukis, Peter Hofmann, and Theo Adam. Go Czech if you go at all.

David Pountney‘s English National Opera Rusalka premiered in 1983 and was filmed three years later. In an era when the stages of English-speaking territories were filled with bland illustration, and many operagoers liked it that way, ENO was doing daring work. Pountney was a pioneer in delving into Rusalka‘s metaphorical possibilities. He sees the heroine’s yearning as being for adulthood and independence.

We begin with Rusalka bedding down in an Edwardian nursery, and perhaps everything that follows is her dream. Her sisters are happy to go on playing with their toys forever. Only Rusalka is curious about the world beyond. The Water Goblin is interestingly conceived as a wheelchair-bound grandfather whose kindly, frail exterior hides a controlling, manipulative nature.

The governess Jezibaba transforms Rusalka by unbinding her swaddled legs. Once out in the world, Rusalka finds no liberation. Just as she had been in the nursery, she is perched in a swing high above the floor, like a caged parakeet. The swing only lowers to ground level when her husband-to-be (perhaps a prosperous young industrialist) gestures. Her clothes are nicer; her new captors are not. When Rusalka returns to the nursery, it is symbolically wrecked, or perhaps only now can Rusalka see how dilapidated it always was. You can’t go home again.

Pountney has intriguing ideas, such as veiled or obscured faces for characters without solo lines. The production surely influenced others that followed, but sometimes we look back at something and “influential” is the highest compliment to be paid. This has been bettered as theater, and now is like lumpy batter once you have tried the cake. Set materials are flimsy, and every creak or thud of stage machinery is faithfully captured.

As a musical performance, this is the biggest trial of the DVDs to get through. ENO’s orchestra, poorly recorded, responds sluggishly to Mark Elder‘s direction. With rhythmic effects of the original language already lost (the English translation is typified by the Gamekeeper’s “Makes me feel uneasy / dubious and queasy”), the music gives up even more in shape and energy.

There is no great singing. The late Eilene Hannan tries hard, but her mousy Rusalka is restricted in color and expression, and conventional to the point of lethality. One gets a point, and then it is made over and over. Rodney Macann‘s thin-toned Water Goblin takes up none of the slack.

In this company, John Treleaven, the Prince, might have seemed to have a big future ahead. He is a limited actor, and his vocal production is not free and easy, but he phrases artfully. He alone makes a good case for the translation. Ann Howard, bringing some thrust and flair as Jezibaba, alone performs as though she is in a good production.

“I know you’re nothing but magic and will fade away, and be dispersed in the rolling mists,” sings the Prince, who is right in a way he does not realize. The vision that beguiles him in Act One is both more and less than the reality of Rusalka. In Robert Carsen‘s 2002 Paris production, I found new sympathy for this Prince, though not at Rusalka’s expense.

The Prince, given an appealing shyness by the singer and director, could be anyone contemplating a new relationship. Often, learning more fully about someone means parting with what was hoped for. Carsen’s modern-dress Rusalka is, among other things, a mature study of adult relationships and expectations.

The realm of the Wood Nymphs has the look of a slumber party around a shallow pool. There is a great moment when the Water Goblin, entering in overcoat and fedora, drops his mock-disapproving look and cracks a smile. He is young-minded and lighthearted, and he and Rusalka have a casual, easy relationship.

The glamorous Jezibaba carries herself as if coming home from a good time out. We probably do not want the details, as she holds a bloody knife. The blade doubles as a mirror, and she touches up her makeup with the blood.

Rusalka alone experiences melancholy. She gestures to a bedroom visible overhead, a symbol of the existence she desires. The lighting by Carsen and Peter van Praet is masterful in delineating two worlds: cool azure and alabaster hues for the watery realm and warm amber for the bedroom, which descends when Rusalka’s wish is granted. When Rusalka again appeals to Jezibaba for aid in Act Three, the overhead bed returns, now angled for the illusion of a bird’s-eye view. Jezibaba occupies it, mockingly.

Attempts to speak bring the human Rusalka real pain, and she occasionally forgets herself and suffers for it. Carsen explores muteness as sexual frigidity. He and designer Michael Levine also make much of mirror imagery. The bedroom is divided down the middle in Act Two, and action taking place on either side may match or contrast. The halves of the set separate at the act’s conclusion.

Rusalka and the Foreign Princess, in turn, mimic one another to achieve their goals. The Princess dons a copy of Rusalka’s white gown, a mean-spirited parody of innocence. Rusalka attempts to turn the tables by changing into the Princess’s usual chic, provocative attire (also worn by Jezibaba) and throwing herself at the Prince, but a trying-too-hard imitation cannot compete with the real thing. Philippe Giraudeau‘s brilliant choreography for the polonaise puts a dozen Princes and a dozen Rusalkas through rituals of courtship and conflict, eroticism and violence.

I have never seen the final scene staged more eloquently and tenderly than it is here. The doomed lovers are back in the bedroom. For the first time, they reach the bed together. Finally they have communicated, and consummation is possible. Rusalka hears the Goblin’s gloomy offstage prediction and it disturbs her, but she closes the door, shutting his voice out, and walks back to the bed in time with the funeral-march version of the “Rusalka’s longing” motif. Maybe the Goblin is right and only sorrow lies ahead, but for however long this reprieve lasts–a night, an hour, a moment–there can be fulfillment, understanding, union. A kiss is still a kiss.

The superior playing of the Parisians under James Conlon puts us in a different world from the previous performance, and no one in Conlon’s cast is less than very good. Renée Fleming never really seemed young, even when she was, and that was a drawback in “naïve” characters. She gamely models the desired attitudes without always selling them. Carsen makes effective use of the warmth and niceness she can project, and she has never looked lovelier than she does holding a wedding gown in front of her and smiling at Sergei Larin‘s Prince.

In 2002, Fleming’s voice could do anything she wanted it to do. Sometimes this means doing too much (her way with a musical line is full of the Schwarzkopfian “art that displays art”), but only Benacková’s abridged performance is as well sung, among those in this survey. It is worth recalling that the first Rusalka, Ruzena Maturová, was, like Fleming, a Donna Anna and Desdemona.

Fleming’s instrument itself evokes warm water, with forceful currents when needed. When Rusalka counters the Goblin, “A plna lásky [And full of love]!” it seems exactly the radiant sound the composer would have wanted. The notated vocal sob within “Rusalku prostovlasou” is perfectly achieved, and the tricky rhythms of Act Two’s well-disguised cabaletta “Ó marno to je [Oh, it’s in vain]” hold no terrors for her.

Larin’s Prince is a trifle labored, but forthright and likable. The Goblin’s music sits in the sweet spot for Franz Hawlata, who has excellent breath control and is a witty actor. Larissa Diadkova and Eva Urbanová bring firepower and hauteur to, respectively, Jezibaba and the Foreign Princess. Carsen makes Jezibaba and the Goblin lovers, and Diadkova and Hawlata have such good chemistry in the bit we see that I wish there had been more.

Karine Deshayes‘s incisive, full-toned Turnspit is a considerable asset. The 75-year-old Michel Sénéchal‘s Gamekeeper is an exemplar of character singing with emphasis on “character.” His ear is not as acute as it once had been; his twinkle is undimmed.

Carsen himself has sometimes seemed caught between two worlds: too modern in sensibilities for arch-traditionalists, not provocative and idiosyncratic enough for those at the other extreme. I doubt he has suffered over his fate as Rusalka does; he has worked steadily and often to acclaim for 30 years. This characteristically elegant and thoughtful staging is one of his great productions.

Having begun with a by-the-book film of Dvorák’s opera and progressed toward abstraction, we will pause. Tomorrow, the Rusalka overview concludes with three performances from the present decade.

Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.