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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Opera Review: Taking the Plunge

Renée Fleming returns as Rusalka.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Her kisses can kill: Rusalka (Renée Fleming) woos the Prince (Piotr Beczala)
in Act III of Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The title role of Rusalka, Antonín Dvořák's long-suffering aquatic sprite, has effectively belonged to soprano Renée Fleming for nearly two decades. From her first performances of the role at the Seattle Opera to the start of her reign in the Metropolitan Operas's handsome, elaborate staging, she has been inextricably linked with Dvořák's most successful opera.  Now, with the advent of the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD broadcasts, Ms. Fleming has plunged once more into Rusalka, with the goal of preserving her interpretation for posterity and eventual release on home video.

To judge from Tuesday night's performance (her fifteenth in this production since 1996) there isn't much left for the cameras to capture. On this night, the soprano's creamy tone and sweet notes were muted, sounding pallid against the crash and roll of the Wagner-sized orchestra. At key moments in the first act, this interpretation struggled to surface against crashing waves of orchestration. As conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin magicked huge sounds from the pit, Ms. Fleming's lower register simply vanished, drowned out at climactic moments by the crashing orchestral surf.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted the famous Act I Song to the Moon at a slow, almost hypnotic tempo, allowing Ms. Fleming room to extend the vocal line and arch over the hushed orchestration. The following transformation scene where Rusalka achieves landfall (with help from the local witch Jezibaba) was much more exciting. The arrival of Piotr Beczala as the Prince effectively saved the evening as he unleashed a gorgeous flood of tone that made the audience notice the real beauties of this score.

The Prince is a stock character with little depth. However, Mr. Beczala projected a sense of boyish wonder, fine command of the language and a searching beauty of tone. He was moving in the outer acts, and even sympathetic in the Act II finale where he is spurned by both Rusalka and her rival, the Foreign Princess. In this latter role, mezzo Emily Magee walked off with the second act, delivering a fiery performance that was compelling and full-bodied. She nearly stole the Prince--and the opera.

Rusalka's magically acquired humanity comes at the cost of her voice, forcing the leading lady to engage in dumb crambo for the first half of the second act. Ms. Fleming took this opportunity to marshal her vocal resources. Her return to singing in a long duet with the Water Goblin (John Relyea) sounded a good deal more like her younger self. The resurgence continued in her final duet with the Prince  where tenor, soprano and conductor collaborated to create genuine fairy-tale wonder in the last pages of the score.

Dolora Zajick's illness resulted in the successful elevation of Mary Philips to the role of Jezibaba. As the Met Live in HD cameras were rolling Tuesday night, one wonders how long that illness will last? John Relyea, unrecognizable under makeup that makes him resemble the Jolly Green Giant, sang the Water Goblin with compelling tone, although the opening scene between this gnome and three nubile young maidens made one long for Das Rheingold. Mention must also be made of the supporting comic roles of the Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy, played by baritone Vladimir Chmelo and the young Canadian mezzo Julie Bouilianne.

This performance of Rusalka was lightly attended, a surprise considering that this production is one of the few shows remaining at the Met that was created by the German team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. Their hyper-realist sets (the lake scenes incorporate three huge fake trees and rolling sheets of plastic to simulate the movement of water) are still charming to look at: Arthur Rackham drawings brought to vivid life. True, the set for the palace gardens in Act II makes little sense (why do the party guests insist on doing a traditional Bohemian dance out by the koi pond?) but it's still easy on the eyes. I'm sure it will look even better in HD.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.