An accepted formula for success is that if you’re going to show people something new, you might as well try to dazzle them by pulling out all the stops. The Lyric Opera of Chicago took this All-Star team assembly approach in presenting Antonin Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, a previously unheard work in Lyric’s repertory. Given the roster of talent, the audience has to practically surrender at the door, and one must admit that is easily done. This Murderer’s Row includes two leads internationally acclaimed in their roles (soprano Ana María Martínez and tenor Brandon Jovanovich), the Lyric’s esteemed music director, Sir Andrew Davis, and, perhaps most impressively, Sir David McVicar, the most consistently inspired of the current crop of opera directors.
Dvořák, like most great composers, is able to transform hackneyed or childish entertainment (in this case, a Czech fairy tale) into inspired material, a work that seems like a hybrid of Wagner and Tchaikovsky with more than a hint of Czech folk influences. The story involves a young immortal, Rusalka (Martinez), the daughter of the Spirit of the Lake (bass-baritone Eric Owens, another impressive addition to the roster), who longs to join the flesh world of humans because she’s set her eyes on a generic Prince (Jovanovich), who comes to the forest she and her family inhabit.
McVicar’s conception of the forest world and its inhabitants places them knee-deep in sewage, the wood nymphs clad in dirty nightgowns and discarded prom dresses, the Lake Spirit a nobleman fallen on hard times. It’s part rock opera, part over-choreographed Broadway musical (why do I feel like I’ve written this before?), and the trees part so our heroine can sing plaintively by the light of the silvery moon like an old Hollywood musical, but with Dvorak’s sublime music and McVicar’s haunting, widescreen visual sensibility, it’s a memorable moment.
The ubiquitous logic gap in the story occurs when Rusalka summons her wicked witch of an aunt, Ježibaba (mezzo soprano Jill Grove), who’s accompanied here by three anthropomorphic crows who wear boots, apparently a nod to Wizard of Oz fans. Auntie is willing to help our heroine, but, to get her prince, Rusalka has to give up her voice. Now it’s easy to attribute her willingness to do so to desperation, but Rusalka must realize she’s getting a bum deal by surrendering her voice; if she can’t say anything, how can she woo her man?
In any case, she wins the prince even though he immediately seems confused by her muteness; in the next act, a week later, he’s already tired of his little mermaid and he’s moved on to an icy but generic princess (Ekaterina Gubanova), whom he courts right in front of his jilted plaything Rusalka. This doesn’t sit well with Rusalka’s spirit father, who pokes his head out of the lake and laments the situation that’s going on inside the sumptuous wood-paneled halls of the Prince. As a result, he curses the prince; the princess doesn’t want any part of this and makes herself scarce.
In an interview included in the program notes, McVicar claims that “the common folk” in the opera, such as the gamekeeper and kitchen boy, two servants who do what servants to best—gossip—have “more respect for nature than the prince does. He’s a hunter who takes from nature—the gamekeeper lives in harmony with nature.” Cliches about the way “common folk” live in harmony with nature aside, set designer John McFarlane’s conception of the great wood-paneled hall has a great visual nod to this concept, with several identical heads from bucks that the prince has bagged pointlessly adorning it, like a nightmare in which the deer get their revenge against the hunter by looking at him everywhere he turns. The second act in particular is amazingly inventive visually; in addition to the great hall, we get a massive but narrow kitchen, the help squeezed in, stuffing giant birds, sweating away. The great hall set itself is divided by a wall which descends and gives a deep focus effect to the Spirit’s lament at his daughter’s mistreatment.
The two leads are near-ideal. Ana María Martinez is someone whom I have praised in the past; her voice seemed distant, at times overwhelmed, though I’m inclined to place blame on poor acoustics at the Civic Opera House. She is a remarkably talented performer, not possessed of a huge voice, but one who gets the absolute most out of her considerable gifts, particularly impressive when McVicar has placed her on her back during a difficult aria and entwined her in fallen tree branches that resemble long fingers during another. Brandon Jovanovich, who has played the prince to Martinez’s Rusalka elswhere in the past, got stronger as the night went on, and he seems to be an unspectacular but solid dramatic tenor, a breed always in demand in opera. Eric Owens had never sung the role of Vodnik, the water goblin/lake spirit, before this performance, and he is as advertised, a charismatic, dedicated artist. In the role of Ježibaba, Jill Grove proved the audience favorite with her full inhabitation of the role of the demented old cat lady-like witch. I’m not going to make any pretense about how they handled the difficult Czech language and the quality of their diction; you can look elsewhere if you’d like for an evaluation of that. Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Orchestra in a performance that was unflaggingly enthusiastic, a remarkable show of endurance by both.
Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka will be playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, on February 26 and March 4, 7, 10, beginning at 7:30 PM, with a matinee on March 16 at 2 PM.