Houston — Antonín Dvořák is hardly at the top of the list when you ask for the names of opera composers. In fact, his name may not even appear anywhere on many lists. Best known for his symphonic and chamber music works, whatever reputation Dvořák has for opera rests with Rusalka, premiered in 1901. Actually, his operatic reputation rests on even less than the full score. It rests on one aria out of Rusalka, the gorgeous “Song of the Moon” from Act One. It is a popular audition selection for many sopranos and a frequent selection for recitals.
Thus, it is likely the the audiences attending the current production of the opera at the Houston Grand Opera are quite surprised to discover that the entire opera is as beautiful as that one aria—from beginning to end. There are echoes of Wagner and Richard Strauss, but there is also a lot of Puccini in the mix. Wagner died 20 years earlier and his last opera, Parsifal, premiered in 1899. Rusalka premiered between Puccini’s Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Another landmark also occurred in 1899 when Arnold Schoenberg ‘s highly chromatic and very late romantic, and stunningly beautiful, Verklärte Nacht premiered.
At this transitional moment in music history, the death of romanticism from a fatal self-imposed disease (Complexia Chromatica Dodecaphonica), Dvořák wrote his final two, very romantic, operas.
Rusalka is the penultimate and the final was Armida (1904), heavily influenced by Wagner. (Lully used the same story for his opera of the same name in 1686. Armida, his final opera, was written in the year of Dvořák’s death and subsequent performances have been few. One reason for this is the complicated staging required, such as a chariot drawn by dragons and a recreating the Crusaders raid of Damascus. Massive battles of invading armies are not well suited to the stage. Neither are dragons. Rusalka still required some stage magic since much of it takes place on the shore of the pond as well as in the pond.
The story concerns the trials of a mermaid, who gives up everything to be human and experience love. It is based on the Czech fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Bozena Němcová with some Slavic mythology added in. It is far darker, ending tragically, than Disney’s saccharine The Little Mermaid, a similar version based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. Further, Rusalka is not a name, as it is in Dvořák’s opera. In Russian, it is the word for “mermaid”—all of them.
The scenery, designed for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, transports us to a verdant woodland pond, redolent with foliage. We find Rusalka, magnificently sung and acted by Ana María Martínez (much loved by Houston audiences), luxuriating in the pond. Her long fish tail moves with realism. This is due to a group of lithe dancers dressed all in black, like the stage attendants in a Japanese Noh drama. There is an unspoken agreement, in Noh tradition, between the play and the audience that anyone dressed all in black isn’t there. (As Rusalka progresses, they become less Noh as they appear shirtless.)
Martínez is superb in the title role. Her voice is under perfect control, evenly produced from top to bottom, and she is able to produce a range of vocal color from a heroic fortissimo to a memorizing pianissimo floated to the back of the house. Her acting is always believable, from her idealistic beginnings, through her frustration of not being able to speak, to her final total despair at the end.
One of the devices of the plot is that the Prince is hunting, or chasing, a white doe when he happens upon Rusalka’s pond. The doe is portrayed by a dancer, not in animal costume, but identified by black-clad Noh dancers holding symbolic antlers over her head.
An aside: Female deer usually do NOT have antlers. There are exceptions, such as some European genera and members of the genus Rangifer, which includes reindeer.
The Prince, sung by the big-voiced tenor Brian Jagde, falls into the pond. Rusalka’s heaving him back up on the shore sets the plot in motion. It is love at first rescue. It is easy to see why: Jagde has a magnificent and ringing tenor voice matched with an imposing physical presence. Surrounded by magical beings that he doesn’t fully understand, he plays the Prince as an all too human male with a wandering eye.
Jagde, a product of the Merola program at the San Francisco Opera, is on a steep trajectory to the top tier of singers. He was wonderful in the short, but critical, role of Narraboth last summer in a bizarre production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, a role he also sang in San Antonio. In 2012, also in Santa Fe, he was cast in a smaller role Strauss’ opera Arabella, but stepped in at the last moment to sing a heroic Caveradossi, a huge role, in Puccini’s Tosca, running concurrently.
Vodnik, Rusalka’s father, who is a Water-Goblin, is portrayed by Wagnerian-sized baritone Richard Paul Fink. He is known for singing the evil Alberich, another goblinesque character (in Wagner’s Ring Cycle). In this role, he is not evil. Instead he plays the character as an overbearing father, always trumpeting the worst-case scenario.
The witch, Jezibaba, is the only being that can help Rusalka become a human and start happily-ever-aftering with the Prince. The steely voiced Jill Grove plays her less like the standard witch, but more like a stern Czech peasant grandmother. Grandma-like, she warns Rusalka of the dire consequences if things don’t go as planned. But you know that she in not a kindly grandma; she is a witch who delivers her warnings with the supernatural voice of doom itself.
The Foreign Princess, who steals the Prince from the poor innocent Rusalka, is played by a scheming Maida Hundeling, as a woman who is overly proud of herself. We all ran into such “mean girls” in high school: beautiful, vain, self centered, and bitchy, aware of her power and how to wield it.
The production is as gorgeous as the opera itself. Melly Still's merger of half-fantasy, half-realism was recreated for Houston by the team of director Donna Stirrup and movement director Rick Nodine. The evocative set, based around a raked ramp that serves as everything from the pond’s shore to the royal digs, is by Rae Smith. She is also responsible for the imaginative costumes. The scene where all of Rusalka’s mermaid pals appear, with their very long fishtails wiggling as they are suspended from above, is a coup de théâtre.
The orchestra does a superior job, playing with finesse and excellent intonation. Conductor Harry Bicket, best known for Baroque and early classical music performances, has been a pleasant surprise in a wide rages of musical styles. In addition to his musicality, his musical versatility one of the reasons that he was recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Santa Fe Opera.
Conducting without a baton, he keeps his energetic motions in front of his body, except for those moments that require some bigger gestures to deliver more inspiration from the podium. Every motion he makes is precise, clear, and expressive with an air of spontaneity that demonstrates a mastery of technique rather than choreography.
So, if Rusalka is such a wonderful opera, why isn’t t performed more often? For one thing, it is sung in Czech. Opera singers are trained in German, Italian, English and French. Other languages have been slowly added, such as Russian and even Chinese. Czech is a recent addition. Mostly, it is the popularities of Janáček’s operas that created the Czech requirement for singers, but Dvořák’s Rusalka is also a good reason to learn the language. Its difficulties can be demonstrated by looking at the translation of the best-known aria, “Song of the Moon”: Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém.
But never mind all of that. Be grateful that the Houston Grand Opera is mounting such a beautiful production of an opera full of glorious music.
Don’t miss it.