Renee Fleming as Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera

A Rare Peformance of Dvorak's Czech National Treasure

By: - Mar 23, 2009

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Antonin Dvorak
Libretto by Jaorslav Kvapil based on the fairy tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque
Premiere: National Theater, Prague, 1901
Conductor, Jiri Belohlavek
Production, Otto Schenk
Set Designer, Gunther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume Designer, Sylvia Strahammer
Lighting Designer, Gil Wechsler
Choreographer, Carmen De Lavallade
Stage Director, Laurie Feldman
Cast: Renee Fleming (Rusalka), Aleksandrs Antonenko (The Prince), Stephanie Blythe (Jezibana),  Kristin Sigmundsson (Water Gnome),  Christine Goerke (The Foreign Princess), Kathleen Kim (First Wood Sprite), Brenda Patterson (Second Wood Sprite),  Edyta Kulczak (Third Wood Sprite), James Courtney (Gamekeeper), Kate Lindsey (Kitchen Boy)
Performance, March 12, 2009
The Metropolitan Opera

The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote nine operas of which the best known is "Rusalka." Apparently he was disappointed that he was best known for symphonies such as Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" while his operas  found little exposure beyond his native Bohemia during his lifetime.

Significantly, "Rusalka" was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1993. This occurred some 92 years after its premiere in Prague. The soprano Renee Fleming sang the title role for three performances in 1997 (conducted by John Fiore) and for three performances in 2004 (conducted by Andrew Davis) all opposite the tenor Dolora Zajick.

In addition to being one of the greatest sopranos of her generation, with her command of languages, Renee Fleming brings remarkable range and versatility to the Met. Last summer we heard her perform Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" in Russian at Tanglewood, conducted by James Levine. During December we heard her at the Met in French for Jules Massenet's "Thais" conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos Again, at the Met, most recently she performed the title role of the water spirit Rusalka conducted by Jiri Belohlavek.

While Fleming is one of the greatest divas of our time she is also remarkably beautiful and stunning on stage. One is always enthralled by her sensual presence and the cascade of lush curls that frame exquisite features. In the realm of opera this is the rarest of combinations and it makes her the greatest of all possible stars. Audiences, rightly, flock to and devour her performances. Within the context of opera Fleming is also a compelling actress who makes you feel for and believe in her character. Although Steve Smith, in a review in the New York Times, stated that "Â…Ms. Fleming sang with tonal splendor and commendable ease, her performance refreshingly free of the overemphatic mannerism that have crept into some of her other signature roles. And a few overly flamboyant gesticulations could mostly be overlooked in the context of an otherwise dignified otherworldiness." Take note that even the divine Ms. Fleming is all too human. Thank goodness.

Rusalka is a water sprite who has fallen in love with the Prince (Aleksandrs Antonenko) who likes to take a refreshing dip in her pool, so to speak, while hunting in the forest. The Czech tenor Antonenko made his Met debut with this role.

We first encounter Rusalka in a tree set over the pool where she and the other water spirits reside. Her opening aria "Song to the Moon" is the best known and most widely performed by Dvorak. It was the first aria that Fleming performed at the Met during a National Council Auditions concert in 1988.  The aria with the rich, nuanced, late romantic music of Dvorak is a stunning vehicle for Fleming which resonated through the audience.

Once again, we were absorbed by spectacular sets this time by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, the subtle, moody lighting of Gil Wechsler, and the inventive costumes of Sylvia Strahammer. The second act was set before the chateau of the Prince which  was stunning in its detail. All of the production values of a Met opera are enthralling. The audience was particularly amused and delighted during a sequence in which frogs and salamanders slither about in a comic manner.

Ruskala pines for the Prince but there is a bit of a problem. He is human while she is not. She appeals to the witch Jezibana who is wonderfully played by Stephanie Blythe. For payment Ruskala surrenders a magical scarf. There is a twist as the potion that Jezibana concocts, with the appropriate boil and bubble, makes her human but also mute.

All of this does not set well with Rusalka's father, the Water Gnome (Kristin Sigmundsson) who is distressed and alarmed by the mortality and tragic fate of his daughter. He rises out of pond and the audience is enrapturd by his exotic character, appearance (fabulous costume and makeup) and powerful performance. His every moment on stage is riveting.

The appearance of the Prince somewhat pricks the bubble of romantic illusion. While Antonenko was recruited for the role based on a spectacular voice, he is less compelling physically. Rusalka's rival for the affection of the prince, Christine Goerke as the Foreign Princess, at least visually, does not represent much competition.

The Prince is immediately smitten by Rusalka even though she utters not a word. She is led back to the chateau to become his bride. While the beginning of the second act focuses on the pre nuptial celebration Rusalka experiences remorse and the loss of her father and sisters. She returns to the pond where in an exchange with her father she magically recovers her voice. By now the Prince, put off by her distance and apparent lack of warmth, has abandoned Rusalka for the Foreign Princess. To be released from the spell the witch informs Rusalka that she must kill the prince who has betrayed her. Rusalka is handed a knife which she tosses into the pond. But the witch curses her by stating that just one kiss will kill the Prince.

The Prince comes to his senses and returns to the forest to find Rusalka.  The lovers are tragically reunited. Having regained her voice Rusalka warns him of the curse of the witch. But despite the consequence they embrace for that fateful kiss. He dies in her arms. The opera ends with Rusalka returning to her watery world.

The decision to compose operas in the Czech language has limited the wider exposure of Dvorak's operas. But Rusalka is regarded by Czechs as a national treasure. Dvorak was particularly attracted to the libretto of  Jaorslav Kvapil because of its many references to Czech and Moravian folklore. According to this tradition the rusalka is the soul of a young woman or girl whose death comes unnaturally or violently due to the actions of an unfaithful lover. In this instance, however, it is the Prince who is dispatched.

The richness and variety of the music of Dvorak provided a compelling evening at the Met. It makes us hope that there will be occasions to enjoy his other operas. But, for that, alas, at least for now, one must visit Prague.