Opera in three acts in Czech
Music by Antonín Dvořák
Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, based on the fairy tales
of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Sir David McVicar
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago
It is something of a shock to learn that Rusalka, which the Lyric is now putting on for the first time, is the ninth of ten operas by Dvořák (1841-1904); is there another major nineteenth-century composer to boast such an extensive yet largely neglected collection of operas? The other shock, once the curtain opens and the overture begins, is how Wagnerian this music is (for the late Dvořák of the “New World” Symphony and the “American” Quartet, at any rate). However, even if many passages and harmonic turns here could seemingly have come straight from Tristan und Isolde, this music is more sweet and less decadent than Wagner can often be, and there are frequent interludes of Czech folk dance and folk song.
The score itself is in fact full of delectable melodies – some of Dvořák’s loveliest – and exquisitely colorful orchestration. What it lacks is the last ounce of variety of mood, a factor that, combined with its excessive length, may account for the work’s relative obscurity. The libretto, for its part, is something of a mixed bag; there is something poignant about the basic idea behind the story, that of the eponymous water nymph who longs to become human after falling in love with a prince yet becomes traumatized by humanity’s fickleness after having been scorned by her fellow nature-spirits for her defection from their world. One would have liked the characterization to be rather more nuanced and engaging: in particular, there is very little I found compelling or interesting about the prince, who, insofar as his character is drawn out at all, comes across as a unattractively shallow and selfish.
The most touching scenes in the opera for the most part occur between Rusalka and either her own thoughts (as in the gorgeous “Song to the Moon” of Act I) or her father, the water goblin Vodník. To some extent, this is in keeping with the cynical view of humanity projected by this fairy tale. Yet the dramatic and emotion arc is not such as to warrant the three-and-a-half-hour duration, although the opera finishes on a high point, a heart-wrenching duet between Rusalka and the prince.
Lyric’s production provided everything one wants for a potentially uneven work. The cast was uniformly strong, headed by soprano Ana María Martínez, whose voice is happily becoming a familiar one at Lyric, as Rusalka, with Brandon Jovanovich making a stellar Prince and Eric Owens a beautiful yet imposing Vodník. The rest of the cast, filled out by Jill Grove as the witch and Ekaterina Gubonova as the foreign princess, was similarly impressive. In the pit, Andrew Davis led a very musical and often quite lively account of the score; the orchestra was in fine form, with mostly warm and secure strings (particularly in the second and third acts), strong brass, and exemplary woodwinds. In tandem with John MacFarlane’s gorgeous set, this makes for a compelling production of an opera that is certainly worth experiencing even if it is not quite a flawless masterpiece.
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL , (312) 332-2244, https://www.lyricopera.org/ , tickets $65 – $299, running time approximately three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions, through March 10, 2014.