04 May 2008
Minnesota Opera makes strong case for Rusalka’s greatness
Why does one so seldom encounter Dvořák’s Rusalka on stage?
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Why does one so seldom encounter Dvořák’s Rusalka on stage?
As produced by Minnesota Opera to conclude its current season, the opera is a delight for both eye and ear. And it’s a unique work as well. Premiered in Prague’s National Theater in 1901, story and score are Romanticism in fullest flower. And, setting it apart from German operas of that era, is a gentle undercurrent of Slavic melancholy that makes its tragic content meltingly bittersweet. Although Rosenkavalier was then still a decade away, Rusalka has all the sensuality of Richard Strauss.
Over a century after its premiere, however, Rusalka remains peripheral to the established repertory. Indeed, the opera came late to stages outside its home community. Although Mahler, then head of the Vienna Opera, expressed interest in the score, Rusalka was introduced to Austria by a Czech company only in1910. In Germany it was first performed in Stuttgart in 1924, and it did not come to England until 1959, when it was staged by Sadler’s Wells. It arrived at the Met in 1993.
Language, of course, was part of the problem. Until Janáček became popular, no one sang Czech, and Dvořák’s refined feeling for the relation of words and music demands that Rusalka be done in the original language. (Elders recall the distant day when in this country Mussorgsky’s Boris was sung in — of all things — Italian.) It’s also of interest that Jaroslav Kvapil took his completed libretto to three other composers who turned it down before he approached Dvořák. (One of them was the elder composer’s student and son-in-law Josef Suk.)
All this, of course, is now water under the bridges of the Moldau, but it does leave one doubly grateful for the superb job that MO has done with this new production, seen in St. Paul’s handsome Ordway Center on April 20 in the last of five performances. Dvořák obviously knew his Wagner well. Aside from the famous “Song to the Moon” Rusalka is largely through-composed, lush in Leitmotivs, and rich in Wagnerian harmonies. The three Water Spirits, clearly younger sisters of the Rheinmaidens, tease gnome Vodnik much as the Wagnerian trio does evil Alberich. Beyond that influence, however, Rusalka is an autumnal evocation of Bohemia’s woods and forests colored further by a disciplined Weltschmerz that adds to the emotional enchantment of the score.
MO artistic director Dale Johnson — true to form — went all out to make this production, to be shared with Boston Lyric Opera, both moving and memorable. Erhard Rom and Kärin Kopischke — responsible, respectively, for sets and costumes — solved the problem of action supposedly under water through sophisticated projections by Wendall K. Harrington. The production profited further from sensitive lighting by Robert Wierzel.
The stage, rich in earth-bound colors in the outer acts, had the muted realism of late Romantic painting, while the second act played in the minimalist palace of the Prince. Animated projections added to the mesmerizing force of the music. As the water nymph smitten love for a mortal, rising American soprano Kelly Kaduce was a waif-like Rusalka, vulnerable despite her determination to follow her heart. Although a role debut, it was with the “Song to the Moon” that Kaduce once won the Metropolitan Opera competition.
In an interview during rehearsals Kaduce praised Rusalka for its long vocal lines, and she sustained them magnificently in performance. She spoke also of the contrast between the many references in the libretto to her being cold and without passion and the very passionate music that Dvořák wrote for the title figure of the opera. “And there is in my mind,” said Kaduce, “an immense difference between burning physical lust for another person and truly unconditional love. “That is the love at the heart of Rusalka with its heightened sense of human emotion.”
“Handsome” is an understatement when applied to lean and lanky Brandon Jovanovich, who makes a true fairy tale figure of the Prince. The Montana native is blessed with a mellow tenor voice of unusual resonance. (Jovanovich sings Pinkerton in San Francisco next season.) Chistin-Marie Hill was — despite her witchcraft — a strong and sympathetic Ježibaba. One felt her heart go out to Rusalka as the walls closed in upon her.
Rules of the nether world are, however, absolute and not subject to exceptions. Robert Pomakov sang gnome Vodnik with the immense voice of a seasoned Wagnerian, while Alison Bates brought fury to the other woman, the femme fatale who bewitches the Prince and takes him from ethereal Rusalka.
Librettist Kvapil assembled his story of the girl who, having fallen in love with the prince, wants life on earth, from the Romantic short story Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquée and Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” Indeed, MO billed Rusalka as “the Little Mermaid, but not with a happy end.”
Matthew Janczewski choreographed an ensemble of dancers from local ARENA Dances with a master’s hand, making the group an integral part of the story. The Polonaise of Act Two was of breathtaking beauty, and he designed suggestions of underwater movement far more successfully than those encountered in most performances of Wagner‘s “Rheingold.”
Robert Wood extracted magnificent playing from the MO orchestra, while Eric Simonson demonstrated both understanding of — and affection — for what Dvořák achieved a century ago.
A bonus of the late April weekend in the Twin Cities was the staging of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice in Minneapolis’ beautifully restored Plantages Theater. Although the work, only an hour in length, qualifies as a song cycle with words and music both by Gorden, it is wiser to place it in the larger — if vague — category of music theater.
Libretto for re-telling of one of the world’s greatest love stories was written while Gordon watched his then-partner die of AIDS. He wrote the text in a single nocturnal outburst of creativity; the score for soprano, piano and clarinet followed. Originally produced and presented by Lincoln Center for the Performing arts as part of the American Songbook and New Vision series, the work was premiered at Rose Theater in 2006.
Musicians for the Minneapolis performance were soprano Norah Long, pianist Mindy Eschedor and clarinetist Pat O’Keefe. A co-production of the Minnesota Dance Theater and Nautilus Music-Theater eight dancers were choreographed by Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner.
Long, with a full-bodied voice with of special color and grit, offered a gripping account of Gordon’s text. And — cleverly — she acted as a member of the dance ensemble, distinguished from her colleagues only by a flower on her simple dress. Rather than telling the story in any literal way the dancers reflected on and reacted music and text in large sweeping motions. The first half of the work celebrated the exuberance of great love. Only with death did the dancers turn to the plot as Euridice died in the arms of Orpheus.
Especially effective was the shadow play of the dancers as they moved across the Styx behind diaphanous screens. In this poignant staging the work, choreographed originally by Doug Verone for his New York troupe, was a further triumph for Gordon, who has found a home away from home in the Twin Cities.
Grapes of Wrath was successfully premiered by Minnesota Opera in February 2008. It was then on stage at Utah Opera; further performances are scheduled by Pittsburgh Opera, Opera Pacific, Anchorage Opera and the University of Indiana.
Some speak of Gordon as “the new Sondheim.” It is perhaps more valid to celebrate him as the first Ricky Ian Gordon. Orpheus and Euridice was recorded on a Records disc by the original cast: soprano Elizabeth Futral, pianist Melvin Chen and clarinetist Todd Palmer. In an expanded version that included a string quartet Orpheus was staged by Long Beach Opera in the city‘s Plaza Olympic Pool.