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Ana María Martínez [Photo by Tom Specht]
10 Apr 2014

A New Rusalka in Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka is visually impressive and fulfills all possible expectations musically with unquestioned excitement.

A New Rusalka in Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Ana María Martínez [Photo by Tom Specht]


Sir Andrew Davis conducted these performances in which Ana María Martínez portrayed the water-nymph Rusalka, Brandon Jovanovich the Prince, and Eric Owens performed the role of Vodník, the water-goblin and father of Rusalka. Additional significant contributions were made by Jill Grove as Ježibaba the witch, Ekaterina Gubanova as the Foreign Princess, Daniela Mack as the Kitchen Boy, and Philip Hirst as the Gamekeeper. The three wood-nymphs were performed by Lauren Snouffer, J’nai Bridges, and Cynthia Hanna, and the hunter was Anthony Clark Evans. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Before the curtain rises on Act One I in this production a brief pantomime is conducted during the orchestral introduction. The moon is clearly prominent during the preamble, a man and woman both in formal attire gaze intently at a suspended painting. The man tumbles out of a chair after having consumed a beverage during what was a presumed social event. At the start of the action the forest is depicted in semi-realistic branches with coloration shading between grey and dullish blues. The three wood-nymphs call out to Vodník as they tease him yet they elude his grasp. [“Hou, hou, hou, hastrmánek nad vodu!” (“Hou, hou, hou! The Lord of the waters is climbing out of the deep!”)]. Mr. Owens, who is made up for his role with exaggerated hands and feet, participates believably in this game of seduction. Once the nymphs retreat, Rusalka appears and begs the indulgent ear and heart of her father. Ms. Maftínez commands admirable vocal projection from the start. When she reveals her desire to Vodník, [“člověkem byt a v zlátem slunci žíti!” (“I want to become a woman and live beneath the golden sun!”)], Martínez describes her longing with a high forte pitch of remarkable purity. Martínez uses her practiced range in describing the wish to join those humans who have souls [“že mají duši, které nemáme”] by contrasting low pitches with opposing high notes to express the love she senses in those very souls [“A pina lásky!”] Vodník reacts with despair when he hears Rusalka’s pleas; here Owens’s appropriate mix of declamatory and lyrical phrasing shows concern for his daughter. At the same time, he communicates a clear disapproval of her need to communicate with the young prince who visits the lake regularly to bathe. Upon his suggestion that she consult the forest-witch,` Rusalka turns for consolation to nature and sings her celebrated song to the moon. Martínez delivered an achingly touching performance as she lay on her bck propped on one of the tree-branches. With imploring tones she expressed her appeal to the moon to stop and tell her the location of her beloved. [“Měsíčku, postůj chvíli, řekni mi, kde je můj milý!” (“Moon, stay but a moment and tell me where my beloved may be found!”)]. At this point both Martínez and the orchestra lingered with telling rubato in their encouragement to slow the celestial bodies. Her whispering piano on the request to communicate with the prince swelled into full voice as Martínez proclaimed that she awaits him at the accustomed locale in the wood. Despite her urgent appeals that it might linger, the moon recedes leaving Rusalka alone to cry out to Ježibaba. In the latter role Jill Grove excelled at portraying the divided nature that Rusalka addressed in flattering appeals, that she was “of both worlds,” the mortal and the magical. In response to Rusalka’s request for a potion to grant her human status, Ježibaba demands both compensation and an explanation. When she perceives Rusalka’s motives, “to love and be loved,” Ms. Grove’s vocal intensity gave excited warnings of the risks to be taken by the water-nymph. She elaborated that Rusalka’s lover would also suffer under a curse of retribution, if the emotional bond should fail to continue. As the incantation proceeded Grove engaged in a physically dramatic and daring scale of recitations to produenthe desired magical effect. She reminds Rusalka further that she will henceforth be mute in exchange for a soul.

With the admonitions of Rusalka’s father echoing in the distance, the Hunter as first enters followed by the Prince, who is overcome by inexplicable weakness in the vicinity of the water. The Prince orders the Hunter to return to the castle and allow him alone to sort out the “strange magic of the forest overwhelming my soul” [“divnější čáry v duši mám domů vrat’te se, chci býti sám!”]. When Mr. Jovanovich as the Prince sees Rusalka for the first time in human form, he begins to understand the water’s powers. The Prince asks, “Vidino divan, … jsi-li ty člověk nebo pohádka?” [“wondrous apparition, … are you real?”]; at the same time Jovanovich released sumptuous high, soft pitches expressing his irrepressible attraction to Rusalka. The final scene of this act enhances the growing love between the protagonists. Since she is unable to speak, the Prince hopes that her kisses will reveal the secret of her condition. After Rusalka gives him the desired sign of her love, Jovanovich declared with anguished joy that he realized Rusalka is not mortal [“Vím, že jsi kouzlo, které mine” (“I know that you are no more than a vision”)] Despite the voices of her father and sisters calling out to Rusalka, the pair runs off to indulge their love out of the forest.

In Act Two the fleeting happiness of Rusalka and the Prince seems troubled both in their own emotional relations and in the eyes of others. After a brief orchestral introduction the curtain rises on a kitchen scene populated by the domestics of the castle. The kitchen-boy stuffs a turkey energetically as the other staff prepares for a festive evening in the palace with expected guests. In the role of the kitchen-boy Daniela Mack gives a distressing account of the Prince’s acquaintance with Rusalka and the effect of the relationship on his demeanor. Ms. Mack truly inhabits the role as she senses fear and predicts instability for the Prince’s future. In the scene immediately following the Prince questions Rusalka on her hesitancy despite having lived in his presence for the past week. Jovanovich’s legato and impassioned top notes expressed the potential still of his growing love for Rusalka, to which she cannot of course similarly respond. The entrance of the Foreign Princess interrupts such developments and functions as a wedge between the pair. The Prince orders Rusalka to dress for the evening’s ball just as the Foreign Princess takes command of her host’s attention. Ms. Gubanova delivers her part with measured hauteur and leaves no doubt that she will destroy any love between the Prince and Rusalka if she cannot herself win over the Prince’s heart. She pronounces the line “mám dvornost jeho, vy však srdce mátez’ [“I have his courtesy although you still have his heart”] with noticeable and very effective vibrato, as she exits on the arm of the Prince.

In the second part of Act Two movement and vocal expression enhance the dramatic excitement. While the ball commences inside the palace, the “ancestral chains” linking Rusalka to the water kingdom reassert their draw [“ve jhu jsi spjatá odvěkém”]. In Lyric Opera’s clever staging the interior and inhabitants of the festively lit palace are visible through a window. In the darkness outside Vodník emerges from his watery realm and laments the unhappiness of his daughter. Owens proclaims with dramatic top notes that Rusalka will be “condemned and drained of life” [“Prokletí živlů jsi propadla!”] At this point Rusalka leaves the ball and, once again able to speak, begs her father for help in her current distress. Martínez used this solo vocal part to delineate her character’s emotional imprisonment: finding it impossible to win over the Prince she is “neither fully spirit nor woman” [“ženou ni vílou nemohu být”]. In the final scene of the act two pairs are caught up in confrontation: after the Prince and Foreign Princess leave the ball, he swears his growing ardor; Rusalka and Vodník remain at the lake’s edge, nez pallid arms, the Prince is cursed by Vodník [“Objetí jejímu neujdeš” (“You will never escape the arms of Rusalka”)]; as if to seal this prediction, Gubanova’s character rejects the Prince while condemning him to the eternal depths with an emotionally powerful dramatic final note as the stage goes black.

Act Three of this production returns to the forest as in the first dramatic scene. In something of a mirror to her famous song to the moon in Act One, Rusalka now sings a lament (“Necitelná vodní moci’ in which she speaks of cruel nature and her unfulfilled wish to die. In her aria Martínez applied diminuendo most effectively, and she placed decoration at particularly wistful phrases. Ms. Grove as Ježibaba now comments on the fate of the water-nymph, reminding her of the previous warning given before Rusalka fled with the Prince. Grove released impressive low pitches forte in condemning the man who abandoned Rusalka. Ježibaba insists that the Prince must die despite Rusalka’s resistance. A comparable message is delivered by Vodník to the Gamekeeper and Kitchen-Boy when they wander into the forest to find help for their master. As the last one to appear searching for his Rusalka, Jovanovich begins his part with dramatic top notes accompanied here by a sumptuous brass section. When lower pitches signal his appeal for Rusalka’s presence, the water-nymph appears. In their final duet Martínez’s voice trembles with dramatic intensity in her warning “that she can only bring death.” The Prince’s relentless demands lead to Rusalka’s kiss and, as predicted, his death. Only thus, as expressed poignantly by Jovanovich can he find peace. Since she is banished from communion with her family, Rusalka must disappear at the close of the drama. Chicago is truly fortunate to have experienced such an exceptional ensemble and sensitive orchestral support from the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.

Salvatore Calomino

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