Tonight the Canadian Opera Company premiered their take on the recent Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Dvořák’s Rusalka directed by Sir David McVicar.
It stands in rather stark contrast to the other current COC production, Puccini’s Turandot¸ whose mise-en-scene seems at odds with the score. Richard Wagner would recognize McVicar’s reading of the story as “Gesamtkunstwerk”, his ideal of the total art work where all the components work together to tell us the story. While it may be that both Puccini & Dvořák would have wanted a unity between all interpretive elements, McVicar’s approach is recognizable in the usual sense as a production honouring the work. Yes it’s still the story of a mermaid who becomes mortal because of her love for a prince. While it’s a bit edgy and up to date in its portrayal of nature and humankind’s relationship to the environment, the conservative audience would take it to its bosom –especially after Wilson’s minimalist stylings—for its willingness to follow the score.
Ballet makes a welcome return to the Four Seasons Centre stage even though holy cow it’s not December / Nutcracker season. Yes Virginia, they do sometimes put ballet into opera. In fact many were written that way, although you’d never know it from COC productions such as the Aida they’re reviving later this season. Andrew George’s choreography brings the work extra dimensions, sometimes symbolic sometimes a wacky diversion. The energy dance brings to the work helps propel the story during a rather long evening.
Whatever else one might say about this show, it belongs to Sondra Radvanovsky, who sounds better this year than ever. While the opera is sometimes a little melodramatic and not to be mistaken for Shakespeare, Sondra’s toolkit matches the work perfectly. There’s a different movement vocabulary for each act, creating a different tone. There’s a long stretch where the character is silent, unable to make a sound as a condition of becoming human; Sondra does these scenes as well as I’ve ever seen them done, with some brilliant moments incorporating the ballet. In the last act she reminded me of a wounded animal, heart-breaking…
Anthony Tommasini’s book The Indispensable Composers does not include Antonin Dvořák in its list of the most important composers: and perhaps it should. Rusalka is one of the most beautiful opera scores. Tonight we heard stunning work from the COC Orchestra led by Johannes Debus in an idiomatic reading. At times we might mistake Dvořák for his near contemporary Brahms, who did make Tommasini’s list even though he is not Dvořák’s equal (in my opinion if not Tommasini’s). Sometimes Dvořák descends into a splendidly ethnic sound for instance in the opening to Act II, a delicious scene with a decidedly Czech flavour. Debus keeps things moving, while the orchestra let their hair down, sounding properly Slavic.
This is one of the strongest recent COC casts. Alongside Sondra, Pavel Cernoch’s Prince is more than a pretty face, especially moving in the last scene. It’s a bit of a miracle that he can be so sympathetic in this role (the Prince being one of the least sympathetic characters in all opera). I was surprised by a flood of tears in the last scene: although Sondra deserves some credit for the impact of the final moments. And Keri Alkema is again a dramatic standout giving the Foreign Princess a somewhat feminist edge in her scenes with the Prince, while sounding terrific as well.
Stefan Kocan’s Vodnik was vocally tremendous, but again benefits from a production that lends gravitas to his every word as a kind of voice for Nature. Elena Manistina seemed to be having a great time as Jezibaba, injecting real star power both with her solid sound & her readiness to camp it up. Every time she showed herself it felt like a party was going to break out, and come to think of it, that’s more or less what happened. Matthew Cairns & Lauren Eberwein took over the show whenever they were onstage, playing up the comedy in their roles as the Gamekeeper & the Turnspit, and sounding terrific.
I’m seeing the show again, and would suggest you do so too. Rusalka continues at the Four Seasons Centre until October 26th.