It’s Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” but the sensual and savage adult version. It’s awash in water sprite sirens, tsunami desire, fire hot passion, dark shadowy depths, and supernatural temptations. It’s a fairy tale for the unfaithful, a Grimm motif for the love struck and a soul-destroying myth for the naïve.
. . .an opulent eye candy buffet.
Friederich de la Motte Fouqué wrote the novella “Undine,” which became the inspiration for Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto of “Rusalka.” Antonín Dvořák then composed this fantastic fairy tale opera, which has become a national Czech treasure. This particular storyline has appeared in various folk lore in different guises and countries. A supernatural water nymph (mermaid) falls in love with a man. She wishes to join him in the human, soulful world and be his love, but to do that she must make a deal with the witch Ježibaba, whose price is to take away Rusalka’s voice.
There is a clause in the contract that says if the Prince does not fall in love with her, she will be damned and he will die. Rusalka is convinced their love is strong enough to overcome a mere hurdle of silence on her part. In this opera version, we also have flirtatious wood sprites, Vodník – Rusalka’s water gnome father, a hunter, kitchen boy, gamekeeper, and a sultry foreign princess.
Sounds charming, right? But it is not going to have a Disney ending. Burning hot love-at-first-sight quickly cools as Rusalka can’t warm to her new surroundings. She has given up her essence, her essential nature, and is in the limbo between who she was and who she can never be. In this gap, the foreign princess slides into the Prince’s arms, sealing their fates. It all ends in tears, death, decay, and banishment. No walking into the sunset holding hands; rather, a slow descent into hell.
The story unfolds in three acts, beautifully set designed by Daniel Ostling. Our first act sees the budding romance unfold in the fecund, lush green foliage of the forest lake. In the center, a gnarled, old, wizened tree dominates the space, festooned with wood sprites in full voice and fancy foot work. The world is enveloped by portals of “wallpaper style” frames. It feels like you are looking at an 18th century masterpiece that is coming alive on your living room wall.
Act II places us in the heart of flaming red passion, the world of human desire and “sin.” The walls seem to be ablaze with the inner fire of carnal fervor. In Act III, Ostling gives us a brilliant deconstructed, decayed landscape, destroyed by bad choices and broken contracts. It’s an opulent eye candy buffet.
Director Mary Zimmerman has crafted an emotionally charged, physical wrestling of death and desire. She has pushed the performers to deliver intense moments of heightened drama so we engage completely with their loves and losses. The stage action is constantly in motion, creating the uneasy, inner churning associated with the unpredictability of human love and desire. People are always rushing away or towards one another at high speeds.
Kristine Opolais as Rusalka is translucent moonlight and cold revitalizing river water – always crashing softly into everything. She gives a feisty yet fragile rendition of the woman putting out flames with her cold fire. She felt like a flooding river bursting its banks, unable to contain her sorrow. She was magnificent. The famous “Song to the Moon” aria was delivered so sensationally as she sat high in the branches of a tree with the full moon rising behind her – a perfect moment from all the co-mingling elements. When she “lost” voice in Act II, you ache to hear her again. You miss her vocal presence and her heartfelt, soaring singing.
Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince was astounding. He has a gigantic presence and a powerful instrument that conveyed a range of intense emotions. He was mesmerizing as he allowed his passions to pull him around the stage in a heated dance until death. Jovanovich is a force of charisma and epic talent.
Jamie Barton as Ježibaba was gloriously demented as the wily witch. She gets to play some delicious comedy and sings with such skill, you feel like she is really capable of casting spells with sound. Katarina Dalayman as the foreign princess was like a rose in full bloom – completely exquisite and tempting. Her voice was so impassioned, you thought she might spontaneously combust at any moment.
Mara Blumenfeld really outdid herself with this particular costume that seemed to be the fabric personification of sexual desire. All of her designs were rich, textured, and loved T.J. Gercken’s stunning light play.
Eric Owen’s Vodník was bold and potent as he commanded the supernatural and human worlds with timbre and tone. You could feel the earth shake with his gorgeous, resonant, bass-baritone as he emerged out of the dark watery depths.
The three wood sprites, played by Hyesang Park (debut), Megan Marino, and Cassandra Zoe Velasco, sounded like three beautiful flutes playing light, bright harmonies with each other. They captured the mischievous, flirtatious spites perfectly.
Austin McCormick made his choreographic Met debut with this production. He excelled at capturing the “spirit” of the forest in all of its magical intangibility. Later in the human world, he created complex, visually arresting ballroom dance sequences where you could feel the grounded weight of human coupling and the “masks” hiding true selves. It was wonderful!
Conductor Sir Mark Elder led the mighty Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with a strong hand and a gentle sensitivity. He took us on a cleansing journey along tripling brooks, to thunderous waterfalls, and to arid floodplains – steering our emotions with his passionate conducting.
Fairy tales often come to us from old legends and folklore and are drenched with psychological symbols. Many questions arise when watching this “childhood” story through the adult lens. What happens to women who give up their “voices” to be palatable to their men? If you turn away from all your essence or true nature, can you ever return to that oasis again? You could read it as a great feminist piece that warns against the dangers of self-abnegation. I did. Perhaps Ježibaba is not a witch, but a wise crone showing the folly of trading your uniqueness for a mirage.
Running Time: 3 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions.
“Rusalka” is currently running through March 2, 2017 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, NY. For more information and tickets, click here.