Lyric Opera’s dark and unfocused “Rusalka” fails to touch the heart

February 26, 2014
Ana Maria Martinez and Brandon Jovanovich in the Lyric Opera production of Dvorak's "Rusalka." Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Ana Maria Martinez and Brandon Jovanovich in the Lyric Opera production of Dvořák’s “Rusalka.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The saw that one shouldn’t judge a performance by its opening minutes was sorely tried with the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Rusalka Saturday night.

The opening Prelude was accompanied by an intrusive pantomime of the opera’s less-than-heroic prince drunkenly swigging from a bottle, flirting with a woman and falling off a chair. The opera itself began with the chorus of slatternly water nymphs in goth makeup and tattered ballet dresses, bumping and grinding like a lineup of frizzy-haired bimbos that dropped in from an Arkansas community revival of Les Miz. With these crass visuals, one steeled oneself for a painful Eurotrash staging of Dvorak’s sweet romantic fable of the title water nymph who sacrifices all for love.

Mercifully, the campy opening was not indicative of what followed and the Lyric Opera’s new David McVicar-John Macfarlane production proved largely traditional with some wry postmodern touches.

Yet despite some terrific singing from the supporting cast and an atmospheric scenic design, Lyric Opera’s belated premiere of Antonin Dvořák’s adult fairy tale failed to reach the heights and, most crucially, touch the heart—partly due to the uneven staging and partly due to a singer in the lead role that failed to deliver the goods vocally and dramatically.

Dvořák’s 1900 opera tells of the lonely water nymph Rusalka who longs for the love of the human Prince. Her father, Vodnik, the Water Goblin, is dubious but advises Rusalka to seek out the counsel of the witch Jezibaba. The witch has a potion that will transform Rusalka into human form but she will lose her power to speak. Further, if she fails to win the prince’s love they both will be cursed for all eternity.

Rusalka agrees, and swallows the potion. The Prince does fall in love with her and takes Rusalka back to his palace where the strange mute woman arouses suspicion from servants and guests. The fickle Prince is soon attracted to a Foreign Princess, and callously rejects Rusalka who runs back to her lake. Ultimately the repentant Prince follows and insists that she kiss him even if it means his death, which he willingly accepts. The Prince dies and Rusalka remians cursed for eternity.

While Dvořák’s legacy today rests largely on his orchestral and chamber music, the Czech composer was a prolific opera composer, though, except for Rusalka, none of his stage works have gained a footing outside of his homeland. Rusalka’s raptly beautiful “Song to the Moon” in Act 1 is a recital standard, yet the entire opera is replete with melodic riches, and crafted with Dvořák’s characteristic flair and feeling for Bohemian folksong.

Gratitude that Lyric Opera has finally brought Dvořák’s opera to Chicago audiences is mingled with disappointment that this new production wasn’t more successful.

McVicar and Macfarlane, who gave Lyric its well-received 2012 production of Strauss’s Elektra, are on less secure footing here. While largely faithful to Jaroslav Krapil’s libretto, there is a half-hearted attempt to make some contemporary environmental hay out of Dvořák’s simple fairy-tale. Macfarlane’s sets are striking for the framing forest scenes with long bare trees, though the towering foundation stones on either side of the proscenium suggest some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial ruin. The lighter servant scene in Act 2 is set in a high, narrow palace kitchen with a Brueghel-like tableau of a fiery oven and huge slaughtered cow hanging from the rafters. The set  for the Prince’s palace grand room is stunning, golden and sterile with multitudinous elk heads on the walls. Macfarlane’s atmospheric scenic designs work well with their subtle indications of the despoilment of nature set against this inter-species romance.

Yet McVicar’s contributions proved distinctly more variable. While the director handled the most difficult dramatic scenes skillfully, including the challenging final moments of the opera, he also injects a layer of cynical postmodern irony that clangs dissonantly with the essential innocence of the opera and its characters. There are several campy bits that come off as patronizing to the opera and to Dvořák, as if McVicar and colleagues are saying, “We’re much too sophisticated to take this Bohemian schmaltz seriously and you should be too.”

Rather than the usual rubbery costume , the Water Goblin is here a bewildering homeless figure, costumed in a dirty and bedraggled long-tailed tuxedo, looking less like an aquatic creature than an assistant conductor down on his luck. The witch jams a stuffed cat into her pot while making her concoction, which she feeds to Rusalka through a funnel (a bit stolen from the revisionist Freudian Hansel and Gretel of Richard Jones and MacFarlane). Jezibaba’s henchmen are costumed as large black crows who cavort about and later steal a baby carriage as fresh ingredients for her spells. With the witch given center stage as comic harridan the gentle romantic plight of Rusalka is firmly shoved to the sidelines.

Somewhere on Earth there may be a more untalented choreographer than Andrew George but I doubt it. The show never fully recovered from his twerking water nymphs at the top of the evening, and George’s anachronistic would-be clever ballet in Act 2 set the audience sniggering. (George was also responsible for the apprentices’ silly hoochi-coo moves in the Lyric’s Meistersinger.)

All this wouldn’t matter if Lyric had a stronger artist able to command the stage in the role of the tragic water nymph. Ana Maria Martinez is a capable singer yet both vocally and dramatically she was simply unable to bring off this assignment with the degree of vocal gleam and dramatic depth Rusalka demands.

Martinez’s soprano has never been a first-class voice and now it has become even plainer and harder in tone, losing whatever luster it once possessed. Her “Song to the Moon” was jarringly blank and literal rendered with unvaried vibrato and a lack of essential melancholy longing. Worse. she took a dive on the climactic final note completely and that wasn’t the only high note Martinez didn’t even attempt Saturday night. Why wait this long to present Rusalka only to do it with a singer who doesn’t have the notes?

Elsewhere the soprano sang sensitively if blandly with the lack of expressive nuance or dynamic shading keeping her Rusalka earthbound and never breaking the heart the way this role should. Dramatically, Martinez seemed to be working hard to make up for her vocal shortcomings, yet ultimately her water-nymph lacked the requisite sad vulnerability, her twitchy, hyperactive performance  ultimately more autistic than artistic.

The rest of the principals were vocally faultless, with the most consistent singing coming from Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince. Jovanovich, whose artistry seems to soar higher with each Chicago appearance, brought a heroic tenor and lyric warmth that made the weak and vacillating character seem more rounded and less odious than usual. The American tenor’s voice has grown in heft and stamina without losing its warmth and flexibility. Jovanovich has moved successfully into Wagner roles in recent seasons and, he deserves to get the nod as Lyric’s Siegfried in its upcoming Ring cycle.

Even with being costumed like a dissipated sterno addict, Eric Owens’ deep and warm bass-baritone was a pleasure throughout the evening as Vodnik, with Owens singing with especially tender sensitivity in Act 2.

Jill Grove is cornering the sorceress market at Lyric, having sung the witch in the company’s Hansel and Gretel in 2012 as well as Jezibaba in Rusalka. Grove brought her big mezzo and evil theatrical relish to the role, though the staging’s broadly comic treatment of the character upstaged the delicate heroine.

As the Foreign Princess who catches the Prince’s wandering eye, Ekaterina Gubanova was aptly malign and imperious. The Russian mezzo-soprano made a notable local debut, singing with big gleaming tone and richness that made her duets with Jovanovich thrilling.

Dvořák’s intentional comic relief is provided by two palace servants who also fill in the exposition. Philip Horst displayed a booming bass-baritone well suited to the pompous and blustery Gamekeeper. In the trousers role of the fearful Kitchen Boy, Daniela Mack made a terrific Lyric debut singing with a clear bright soprano and making the character’s wide-eyed trepidation amusing. Lauren Snouffer sang well in her Act 3 solo as the First Wood Nymph.

After some horn bobbles during the opening Prelude, the Lyric Opera Orchestra settled down and presented a glowing and resplendent performance of Dvorak’s glorious score under Sir Andrew Davis’s alert and sensitive direction.

Rusalka runs through March 16.; 312-332-2244.

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