“Rusalka” remains a favorite vocal touchstone for Renée Fleming

January 22, 2014
By Wynne Delacoma

Renée Fleming sings the title role in Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” which opens Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Nobody can accuse Renée Fleming of being a creature of habit.

Within the next few months, her calendar includes recitals in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, Las Vegas, Tucson and Mesa, Arizona, as well Abu Dhabi. There is a concert performance of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier in Washington, D.C. with the National Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach. Also staged performances of Strauss’ Arabella at the Salzburg Easter Festival and Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Los Angeles Opera.

And let’s not forget her date to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

But her schedule also includes an opera that the acclaimed American soprano has returned to again and again. Beginning Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera, Fleming reprises the title role of the water sprite in Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka.

Seven performances are scheduled through February 15, and the February 8 matinee will be shown at movie theaters throughout the country as part of the Met’s HD simulcast series. Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts, and the cast includes Piotr Beczala, Emily Magee, Dolora Zajick and John Relyea. The production is a revival of the Met’s first presentation of Rusalka, staged in 1993 by Otto Schenk with sets by Gunther Schnieder-Siemssen. Slovakian soprano Gabriela Benachkova sang the title role in 1993, but Fleming has headed all subsequent Met revivals in 1997, 2004 and 2009.

“I have such a long history with this role,” said Fleming during a morning phone interview amid a busy week of Met rehearsals. “It started with the aria [the haunting Song to the Moon] in undergraduate school. I sang it in English. For a while there I sang it a lot. But then I put it away because, believe it or not, I thought it was too easy. ‘It won’t impress anybody—there aren’t enough high notes, there’s no coloratura.’ When you’re young and you don’t know anything…”

Fleming’s first manager urged her to put it back in her repertoire. “I started winning the Met competitions,” she said, “and it was the aria that put me on the map.”

It also led to her first staged performances of Rusalka, at Seattle Opera. In 1988 Fleming was among an astoundingly gifted lineup of winners in the Met’s annual National Council Auditions, along with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Ben Heppner.

“Speight Jenkins [general director of the Seattle Opera] heard us that year at the auditions,” said Fleming, “and he hired us all to do the opera.” With Fleming in the title role and Heppner as the Prince, the three appeared in the company’s Rusalka in fall 1990.

Not only was that 1990 production Fleming’s debut in Rusalka. It was the first time she had encountered the opera live.

“It was never done,” Fleming said. “But [conductor] Sir Charles Mackerras–and also Yveta Graff –were bringing this Czech repertoire over here to the West for the first time.” Born in Prague, Graff has worked as a language coach with countless opera companies and singers on original-language productions of Eastern European operas.

Fleming keeps returning to the fairy tale of the water sprite who falls disastrously in love with a human prince because of Dvorak’s lushly romantic score

“It’s such a great fit, musically speaking,” said Fleming. “The thing that the repertoire I love the most has is the tessitura that’s very middle voice to sort of top of the staff. Not too much power, much more lyrical, less heroic, with a sympathetic character. It’s very much the same vocal writing as Otello and a lot of the Strauss roles that I love. They all have a similar fit.”

Dramatically, Act II is a challenge. Driven by love of the prince, Rusalka has become mortal. But in winning that magic transformation, she gives up her ability to speak. The prince, confused by her seeming coldness, woos a visiting princess. Having lost his love, Rusalka faces a life in hell.

“The odd thing remains that she’s on stage for most of Act II but isn’t heard,” said Fleming. “For a title role in an opera, that’s a bit–I would say–unusual. I try to be more expressive in that respect.”

Despite this winter’s occasionally brutal weather, she said Met rehearsals are progressing smoothly.

“Everyone’s in amazing vocal shape,” said Fleming. And she had special praise for Nezet-Seguin. Now in his late 30s, the French-Canadian conductor started out as a choral conductor, working for four years with the Opera de Montreal. Subsequently, orchestral posts have come his way and he is currently music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain and the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

“He’s doing an amazing job with this opera,” said Fleming. “He’s really brought a level of vitality to it and he really understands singers and singing as well or better than anybody I’ve worked with. He really gets it; he’s grown up with it.

“The danger with this opera, because the music is so beautiful, is that it becomes too indulgent and then the piece dies,” she said. “There has to be a liveliness to it, and it’s got to continue to move but still have those moments of repose. That’s the piece he’s really got perfectly. He’s a great, all-around opera conductor.”

Dvořák’s Rusalka opens Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera and runs through February 15. metoperafamily.org

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