I was fortunate to see Rusalka in its final performance November 19th.at Opéra de Montréal, a co-production of Minnesota Opera & Boston Lyric Opera originally directed by Eric Simonson, remounted on this occasion by Bill Murray.
The production had at least two stars.
First and foremost, the production leans happily on soprano Kelly Kaduce, whose voice is always pleasant & in tune, and sometimes astonishingly expressive. The demands of the role are somewhat daunting if you consider that Rusalka is a mermaid who is transformed into human form, for a time bereft of her voice, and betrayed by the prince who prefers the heat of a high-maintenance princess to the unconditional love of Rusalka: a mute beauty who is as cold as the princess is hot. Kaduce’s physical beauty not only mirrored the innocent loveliness of the natural world from which she comes, but made this challenging story far more believable and absorbing.
Beauty was the essential ingredient to this production. The other star was the mise-en-scène, particularly the projected images designed by Wendall K. Harrington. We’re immersed in a world apt for each of the three acts, images of startling depth and realism:
- Act I: A range of innocent images of nature, the water, the moon, forest, including a brief interlude with a psychedelic colour scheme as Rusalka is being transformed into human form by the witch Jezibaba
- Act II: while most of the stage is now the civilized world of the Prince and his court, projections interpose aspects of the natural world, particularly Rusalka’s father Vodnik, the powerful Water Goblin.
- Act III: we’re back in the natural world again, but it’s a fallen world, including storms and portents
In some respects this is a conservative production, presenting the main relationships without irony. While two of the subordinate characters (who serve as comic relief) are cut, the overall integrity of the opera is largely preserved. Both Jezibaba (Liliana Nikieanu) and Vodnik (Robert Pomakov) are given their comic moments, but the prevailing tone of the opera is intensely serious. The sub-textual critique of humanity –that the Prince and all humans are simply unworthy of Rusalka and what she and Nature offer—reads as a kind of pro-ecology message. Pomakov ably shoulders the burden as the defender of both his daughter and Nature.
I had been in attendance at the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) conference this past weekend in Montreal, lending a curious lens through which to view the performance. After listening to conversations at ASTR concerning alternatives to virtuosity –for example the deliberate use of stutter and false steps by Nature Theatre of Oklahoma –I was sensitive to the ironic choreography in Act II, incorporating slips, slaps, and other mis-steps to suggest a very dark view of romance in what is ostensibly a celebration of conjugal love. But you don’t come out of this production feeling very good about humanity.
This was the closing night of a four performance run. Opéra de Montréal will be back Sunday December 4th for a special fund-raising Gala.