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16 Jun 2019

Rusalka in San Francisco

It must be a dream. Though really it is a nightmare. The water sprite Rusalka tortures herself if she is telling the story, or tortures the man who has imagined her if he is telling the story. Either way the bizarrely construed confusion of Czech fairy tales has no easily apparent meaning or message.

Rusalka at San Francisco Opera

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Rusalka [All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera]


But it does have several hours of quite beautiful music to be sung and danced, and that has happened just now in San Francisco. Soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen made her role debut as the “rusalka” or water sprite who has fallen in love with a hunter who is, incidentally, a prince. The role is a tour de force.

Seated in a moonlit tree Mme. Willis-Sorensen (35 years old) captured all of the naive magic of Dvorak’s famous Song to the Moon. Her considerable vocal resources are now fully realized (she was an ingenue Eva in SFO’s 2015 Meistersinger) and in this Rusalka fully utilized — even though she is voiceless for the entire second act when she must confront her competitor, the Foreign Princess. Rejected she returns to the forest to confront her destiny — that she kill the hunter she loves or forever lure men to their death with her kiss.

Rusalka_SF2.pngAct II Hunting Lodge

This occasioned quite a lot of singing. Mme Willis-Sorensen acquitted herself magnificently, the beauty of her silvery colored voice raging and caressing with unfaltering strength the conflicting emotions of her lost innocence. The hunter prince returns to her only to be pulled into the depths of the earth by her kiss. But not before joining Rusalka in one of opera’s most thrilling duets, it’s emotive extensions dissolving into an ultimate resignation to loss.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, a veteran hunter prince (he has recorded the opera with Anna Maria Martínez)) again brought beautiful, secure singing and ardent acting to this role. Mr. Jovanovich naturally brings the genuine innocence required by most tenor roles, plus he retains the requisite physicality. He is a unique artist.

The David McVicar production from Lyric Opera of Chicago gently embraces a lament of the effects of human intrusion into the natural world. The concept engenders a mysteriously lovely, animated forest marred by a concrete sewage dam, and a gigantic, trophy laden hunter’s lodge with carcass laden kitchen. Huge subtle atmospheres were thereby created that provided requisite presence for the unexpected monumentality of Dvorak’s score.

Rusalka_SF4.pngRachel Willis-Sorensen as Rusalka, Brandon Javonovich as the Prince

Houston opera principal guest conductor Eun Sun Kim drove the emotional flow, pulling the vibrant Dvorak colors from the triple winds of the opera orchestra, urging full-throated force from its strings. Unlike the subtlety of the McVicar production Ma. Kim strove for immediate effect. It was thrilling when it was not overpowering. This talented conductress did find balance in the final moments of the duet. Its hopelessness seemed genuinely felt.

The three Wood Nymphs were appropriately embodied by three delightful Adler Fellows who frolicked together with the Opera’s corps de ballet in motions of rustic grotesquerie. British operatic choreographer Andrew George as well created the extensive balletic dance caricatures in the second act hunting lodge. The witch Jezibaba who transforms Rusalka into human form was sung by mezzo Jamie Barton with exaggerated grotesque sophistication.

Rusalka_SF3.pngThe Wood Nymphs and the corps de ballet

The high level casting was completed with Icelandic bass Kristen Sigmundsson singing Rusalka’s father Vodnik and bass baritone Philip Horst as first the lusty then the frightened Gamekeeper. Both artists were appropriately cast in these character roles that were very well sung. The Kitchen Boy who becomes Rusalka’s first victim was beautifully portrayed by former Adler Fellow Laura Krumm.

Soprano Sarah Cambridge, a recent Adler Fellow, was a perfunctory, steely toned Foreign Princess. An additional hunter was rendered by former Adler Fellow baritone Andrew Manea.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Rusalka: Rachel Willis‐Sørensen; The Prince: Brandon Jovanovich; Vodník: Kristinn Sigmundsson; Ježibaba: Jamie Barton; Foreign Princess: Sarah Cambidge; First Wood Nymph: Natalie Image; Second Wood Nymph: Simone McIntosh; Third Wood Nymph: Ashley Dixon; Forester: Philip Horst; Kitchen Boy: Laura Krumm; Hunter: Andrew Manea.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Eun Sun Kim; Production: David McVicar; Revival Stage Director: Leah Hausman; Set Designer: John Macfarlane;
Costume Designer: Moritz Junge; Lighting Designer: David Finn; Choreographer: Andrew George. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 16, 2019.

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