Santa Fe season of rarities rounded out by a “Rusalka”of probing psychological depth

August 05, 2023
By Charles T. Downey
Ailyn Pérez performed the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Curtis Brown/SFO

As if there were not enough reasons to visit Santa Fe Opera this summer, the fifth opera of the season is Antonín Dvořák’s rarely seen Rusalka, another company premiere by general director Robert Meya. The Czech composer, known principally for his orchestral music, had the chance to study the great operas of history while playing in the viola section of pit orchestras in Prague theaters. Seen on Friday evening, this intriguing and handsome production, directed by David Pountney, featured another strong cast of singers.

The libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil takes up the folk-legend story of a water sprite, known in Czech folklore as a rusalka, and her father, an aquatic monster named Vodník. In a plot drawn partly from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Rusalka falls in love with a human prince. A witch, Ježibaba, gives her the ability to walk on land, in exchange for her voice, but the prince falls in love with another woman, leading to his death and Rusalka’s punishment.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez made a triumphant return to Santa Fe in the title role. Her physical beauty and ability to move expressively suited the character, and her voice has ripened into a mature and intense instrument. Rusalka’s Act I “Song to the Moon”—the opera’s best-known excerpt—resonated poignantly, with true intonation and smooth tone quality up to a sparkling high B-flat. The companion aria in Act III featured silken vibrato singing.

In his Santa Fe debut, tenor Robert Watson seemed less secure vocally as the Prince. Confident and aristocratic in bearing on stage, he sometimes failed to project clearly into the outdoor theater. Top notes came out commandingly, but sometimes at the edge of control, as in the high C in an otherwise pleasing final duet with Rusalka.

Bass James Creswell excelled as a stentorian Vodník, although having him seated in a wheelchair throughout the opera made him a less menacing figure. Statuesque soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams made a haughty Foreign Princess, especially in her imperious red costume, complete with dominatrix-style riding crop (costume design by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, realized by Zeb Lalljee). Her entrances, seated on a golden statue of a horse rearing up, were more memorable than her fitfully pallid vocal tone.

Raehann Bryce-Davis’s fiery mezzo gave an imposing severity to the witch Ježibaba, costumed in black as a sort of wicked Victorian nurse. SFO apprentices had their best solo turns of the season, led by the trio of spirits sung impeccably by Ilanah Lobel-Torres, Lydia Grindatto, and Meridian Prall. The absurd duo of tenor Jordan Lloyd’s Gamekeeper and mezzo Kaylee Nichols’ Kitchen Girl nearly stole the show with their comic scenes. The chorus of water spirits added magical touches from a position behind the set.

Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, appearing in the Santa Fe pit for the first time, led the orchestra with a capable hand. Glimmering harp solos, ardent woodwind lines, and imperious brass all lined up in well-coordinated fashion, but Yankovskaya’s balances were frequently off, allowing too much orchestra to swamp the singers. 

For his first production at Santa Fe Opera, English director David Pountney has set this fairytale opera in a Viennese psychiatric hospital. This worked conceptually, as the theories of Sigmund Freud, who was analyzing patients in Vienna at the time the opera premiered in 1901, dovetailed nicely with the sexual repression of the frigid Rusalka, contrasted with the erotic energy between the Prince and the Foreign Princess.

The stage was framed by a wall of tall white cabinets, with large doors that opened to allow some entrances (scenic design by Leslie Travers). The draining of color from the production added to the sense of a clinical environment. The set tilted slightly to house right, implying a neurotic imbalance, with water pooling to the lower side creating Rusalka’s realm in the lake. Rather than a tree, she climbed a stack of white chairs soldered together.

Sexual possession and the animal nature of the erotic drive came across in the court scenes in Act II, where women with the heads of deer were displayed in glass cases by the Prince. Rusalka ends up trapped in one of these cases, but the boxes appear skewed and broken open in Act III, as the ordered world of the asylum breaks apart. Three child supernumeraries in Act I, all carrying puppets, evoked Freud’s treatment of neurosis through the examination of childhood memories, as did Ježibaba’s treatment of Vodník by morphine injection.

Rusalka runs through August 22. In its 2024 season, Santa Fe Opera will present La Traviata, Don Giovanni, and The Elixir of Love, plus Der Rosenkavalier and the world premiere of The Righteous by Gregory Spears.

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