Long before Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” or even the eponymous children’s story by Hans Christian Anderson, various European traditions featured legends of water maidens longing to join the human race. For the operatic stage, Czech master Antonín Dvořák crafted a tragic fairy tale, “Rusalka,” that balances Bohemian folk styles with eerie melodies and heated encounters. Last week, the Metropolitan Opera remounted a sumptuous production of the piece starring America’s favorite diva, Renée Fleming.
After falling in love with a handsome prince, the titular water spirit yearns to become human. Despite her father’s warnings, Rusalka begs the forest-witch Jezibaba to transform her. The sorceress agrees under two conditions: As a human, Rusalka will have no voice, and if the prince rejects her love, she will be doomed forever to a soulless existence. When the prince ultimately grows tired of the young maiden’s affection, they both must endure the consequences of this eternal curse.
Fleming, who will sing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVIII, brings her renowned interpretation of the title character to the Met for the fourth time in almost two decades. Some of the shine of her lustrous portrayal has dimmed with the passage of time, but the soprano still manages a compelling performance. Age has certainly taken a toll on Fleming’s sterling instrument—nonetheless, her top notes are secure, and much of her singing is still effortlessly lyrical. Rising tenor Piotr Beczała plays the arduous prince whose rejection of Rusalka seals both their fates. With characteristically ringing quality, Beczała’s voice is rich and vibrant and easily executes the role’s stentorian phrases. Unfortunately, the tenor falls victim to the Met’s antiquated staging. With stock gestures, Beczała fumbles through the evening.
As the Water Gnome, Rusalka’s disagreeable father, John Relyea gives a vocally inconsistent presentation. His sonorous bass mostly contributes an imposing quality to his characterization, but he sometimes falters, especially in the upper register. Dolora Zajick is a forceful yet strangely amusing Jezibaba, while Emily Magee displays rich tone as the foreign princess who seduces Rusalka’s betrothed. Together, the three wood sprites—Dísella Làrusdóttir, Renée Tatum, and Maya Lahyani—blend their bright voices into delightful harmony.
Under the baton of exuberant conductor Yannik Nézet-Séguin, the Met Opera orchestra offers a lush and dramatic performance of Dvořák’s surging score—even if, at times, it covers the singers.
The staging by Otto Schenk premiered in 1993, and it is really starting to show its age. While the picturesque sets are breathtakingly beautiful, they do little to hide the outdated stage directions employed throughout. The performance is mired by operatic clichés, and attempts at “drama” were often laughable. This production has become a postcard from a bygone era, and one would have hoped that in reviving such a gem, the Met would have infused some more life into this passionate opera.
Dvořák’s sublime music is undoubtedly the night’s star, and this run of performances offers Columbians the chance to hear one of opera’s most underplayed scores. Even if the staging is trapped in the past, the overall effect is still worth a trip downtown.
“Rusalka” run through Feb. 15, and the Feb. 8 matinee will be transmitted live to movie theaters in high definition worldwide. Tickets start at $20.