Fine Performances Benefit This Appealing Opera

By: - Aug 06, 2023

“Make a wish – any wish – and it will come true.” Many fantasies offer the protagonist a deal that is too good to refuse. Inevitably, either the recipient of the gift doesn’t see the invisible trap that was laid which nullifies the benefits from the wish.  Elsewise, the beneficiary underestimates the cost of an agreed upon quid pro quo.

Rusalka means water nymph in Czech.  The title character falls in love with a human Prince who cannot see or feel her.  She tells Ježibaba (the Czech word for witch) that she will sacrifice whatever to become a human and receive his love.  In the bargain that she strikes, Rusalka will be mute, and if she loses The Prince’s love, she will lure him to his death and suffer damnation.  Desperate for love, she feels that she can live with the conditions and agrees to them.  The moral of the story – be careful what you wish for.

Although Czech opera flourished during the latter Romantic period, it long failed to get recognition by aficionados of the Italian-French-German tradition, largely based on the difficulty of casting in Czech language.  Fortunately, Smetana, Janácek, and in this case, Dvorák, have entered the repertory.

“Rusalka” ranks as Dvorák’s most popular opera and with good reason.  Applying Wagnerian principles with leitmotifs and in sung-through fashion, it also draws from Czech folk music.  The thoroughly romantic, luxuriant music possesses extractable set pieces of compelling melody and emotion.  The fairy tale story draws on several sources, mixing light and dark, with a resulting dramatic outcome.

This opera represents the opportunity for female performers to dominate and excel, and the artists in Santa Fe Opera’s premiere production of the work rise to the occasion.  Ailyn Pérez portrays Rusalka, winning the hearts and minds of the audience with a rapturous performance.  Well-regarded in lyric roles, she demonstrates her capability to crossover into spinto/dramatic mode with this challenge.  The composer provides one of the most hauntingly beautiful love arias in opera for the title character, “Ode to the Moon” in Act 1, which the artist caresses mournfully and then powers to its dramatic conclusion.

Rusalka faces antagonists of various sorts throughout, the most consequential being Ježibaba, played with sassy flair and sung with deep mezzo resonance and cutting dramatic bits by Raehann Bryce-Davis.  Her highlight is the humorous conjuring aria as she transforms Rusalka.

Another antagonist to the water-nymph-turned-human is the Foreign Princess, performed by the saucy, scene-stealing soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams.  While Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s stunning costumery for female principals in this production emphasizes white-colored and demure, the Foreign Princess stands apart, bedecked in a red dress, hat, and long boots.  She even enters astride a mock golden steed.  Driven by her passion, she wins the attention of The Prince, the clear-toned tenor Robert Watson, with whom she shares a chilly but sparkling duet.

The controversial element of Director David Pountney’s production is scenic design.  As written, “Rusalka” opens in a meadow by a lake which is well-represented by a dank swampy or foresty set.  The whole opera as specified takes place outdoors, and darkness is even mentioned in the libretto.  But Leslie Travers’s full stage set is comprised of massive white built-in looking cabinets which creates unnatural domesticity and artificial brightness that opposes the intent of the story.  Traditionalists will be offended.  An interesting element of the set is a “tree” built of white metal chairs, which Rusalka climbs upon with the audience wondering if and how it will hold.

That said, artistic license triggers interest, and some benefits derive from this depiction.  Modules of the set are portable, so that a laboratory table and glass cabinets to display female trophies can easily roll into place. So the staging may be inappropriate in several ways, but it does provide exceptionally strong visuals.

Whatever disagreements on staging, however, performances are superb. Strong, clear-voiced James Creswell as Vodnik, Rusalka’s father, also deserves mention.  Cheers to Lidiya Yankovskaya who conducts with accuracy and great aplomb.  Finally, the opera itself is a wonderful testament to the collaboration of creative minds.

“Rusalka,” composed by Antonin Dvorák with libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil and based on the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben and Božena Nemcová is produced by Santa Fe Opera and plays at its home at 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM through August 22, 2023.