Make Rusalka Part of Your World

Den lille havfrue, written by Hans Christian Andersen and published in 1837, is the story about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul. The popular tale has been adapted a variety of times in the world of the arts. Undoubtably, Disney’s 1989 cartoon, which is rumored to have a live-action reboot, is the most popular adaptation of The Little Mermaid in animated film.

In musical theatre, way before the 2008 Broadway show produced by Disney Theatrical brought Ariel’s story to the stage, an opera by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was first performed in Prague in 1901: Rusalka. This opera, about a water sprite, was written by the poet Jaroslav Kvapil, who intertwined Anderson’s story with Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová, along with Friedrich de la Motte Fuqua’s novella Undine (previously set as an opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and others), that had even been performed by Audrey Hepburn.

In the brand new production for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, that opened on February 2nd, Mary Zimmerman imagines a hauntingly oneiric world. The avant-garde theatre director and playwright from Nebraska, Mary Zimmerman, came up with an apocalyptically Dantesque mise-en-scène, that coalesces Romantic elements with classical theater.

Her profuse experience with theatrical adaptations of literary works, such as Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Eleven Rooms of Proust, has given her a unique approach to opera direction. She is the director and co-librettist of the 2002 opera Galileo Galilei, music by Philip Glass, commissioned by the Goodman Theatre, and ever since 2007 Zimmerman directed the first of a series of new productions for the Metropolitan Opera.

Zimmerman’s Rusalka with the stupendous set designs by Daniel Ostling evokes the ominous and beautifully painted triptych by Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights. In the first act the essence of the water sprite lives in a world of harmony, where verdant-cerulean colors and cold nuances reverberate under the moonlight shadow. The stage is enveloped in the flow of the evanescent water world, through T. J. Gerckens’ bewitching light design, as costume designer Mara Blumenfeld creates a chimerical garment for Rusalka, that entangles her in waterlilies. Water is the safe haven of the nymph, her Garden of Eden, that will get disrupted when witch Jezibaba fulfills Rusalka’s desire to become human.

When the water spirit leaves the confines of her lake home, in search of her beloved prince at the cost of her voice and all that she holds dear, she will be doomed. In the second act the boisterous oranges, reds and yellows heat up the atmosphere of lecherous humanity, where the lunar soul contrasts with the surroundings through her ghostly luminescence. The creature who comes from the chilly abysses is a stranger to fiery passion, and is unable to satisfy the prince’s lust for the flesh. Through prodigious dance sequences, choreographed by Austin McCormick, we see figures engaged in diverse amorous sports and activities, often behaving overtly and without shame.
In the third act the “pale pale” Rusalka (as she is repeatedly called by the Water Gnome, her father), is thrust in a limbo of decadence, where she is neither spirit or mortal. She is a phantom wandering in a beige palette limbo, where the prince seeks her forgiveness and is willing to die for her kiss.

The exquisite music conduction by the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Mark Elder, amplifies the thaumaturgy of the lyric fairy tale. The English conductor, in addition to his many recognitions (which include an Olivier Award and conductor prize of the Royal Philharmonic Society), is renown for being the principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. His historical knowledge of period instrument orchestra magically intertwines with the visionary direction by Zimmerman, who coalesces the Victorian era with references to seventeenth century France.

One of the most sought after sopranos on the international scene, Kristīne Opolais, takes over the titular role from Renée Fleming who previously performed it at the Met in 2014. The Latvian singer so far appeared at the Metropolitan Opera New York, Wiener Staatsoper, Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala and Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Her interpretation of the mythical water nymph in Dvořák’s fairy tale is graceful, poised and tender. She sings like an angel and her ethereal pitch perfectly reflects the delicacy and coyness of the water spirit.

Kristine Opolais stars alongside the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, in the role of witch Jezibaba, whose stage presence and vocal puissance make her perfect for the part. Just as enticing are tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, playing the Foreign Princess, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, as the Water Gnome. Also the secondary characters add luster to the entire performance: Daniela Mack (Kitchen Boy), Alan Opie (Gamekeeper), Anthony Clark Evans (Hunter), along with the wood sprites played by Hyesang Park,  Megan Marino and Cassandra Zoé Velasco.

Dvořák’s fairytale of love and longing, rejection and redemption, remains a compelling timeless story where the imaginative transcends realism. As Rusalka sacrifices her voice and true nature, disavowing the land she comes from to experience mortal love, she undergoes such a radical transformation that the consequences are detrimental. The long-lasting moral reverberates in a spectacular Met production that glorifies a cornerstone in the repertoire of Czech opera houses.