Saturday, March 14, 2009

Metropolitan Opera - Dvorak's Rusalka, March 14, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle Seat D106 ($126.50).

Story. The water nymph Rusalka falls in love with a human prince, and asks the witch Yezhibaba to change her into a human being so they can be together. The witch agrees but warns her that she will be mute and her lover will die if he falls in love with another person. Although the prince and Rusalka do fall in love, the prince eventually marries a princess who has been pursuing him. The prince wants to go back to Rusalka, they kiss and the prince dies. Rusalka sinks back into the deep waters.

Conductor - Jiri Belohlavek; Water Gnome - Kristinn Sigmundsson, Rusulka - Renee Fleming, Jezibaba - Stephanie Blythe, The Prince - Aleksandrs Antonenko; The Foreign Princess - Christine Goerke.

One of the lesser known facts about Dvorak is that he was as prolific a composer of operas as he is of symphonies: he wrote 9 each during his lifetime. Since operas are usually much longer than symphonies (2 hours versus 45 minutes), he probably spent more time doing the former. Until today I had not seen any of his operas. Rusalka supposedly is one of the more famous ones and is considered a national treasure in the Czech Republic (I wonder how Slovakia feels about it.)

With a conductor born in Prague, and Renee Fleming singing the lead role, this should turn out to be a great opera to watch. However, I was a bit disappointed.

Our seats were reasonable: dress circle, just about the center. The staging was nice and appropriate. Whatever they did to make the “lake” made it look quite real, at least from where we were seated. My only real complaint would be that the lighting was too dim for those of us without the keenest of eyesights. The music was pleasant. The program notes devote several pages to describe how the simpler melodies are mixed in with more complicated passages to paint the different characters and scenes. Probably true, but it is not obvious upon the first hearing. Surprisingly, I have faint knowledge of only one melody (orchestra), the “famous” “Song to the Moon” was completely new to me. Dvorak usually incorporates some folksy tunes in his work, as I type this (inn a plane to Hong Kong) I don't remember any tune that is particularly memorable, though.

Renee Fleming's performance was not as great as I expected. This must be the fourth opera I saw in recent years where she played the lead role (Violetta in La Traviata, Desdemona in Otello, and Thais) and I was impressed with my previous encounters. Today, however, her voice didn't carry as well and sounded surprisingly weak. There were impressive episodes now and then, but the overall performance seemed spotty. Indeed the witch, played by Stephanie Blythe, did much better in my opinion.

The story was a bit too “childish” and too straightforward. It reminds me of one of Andersen's Fables (indeed the Little Mermaid is quite similar, I am told). The only twist is that prince dies when he abandons Rusalka. Usually it is the heroine that dies, although in this case her ultimate fate is not resolved.

The orchestra played well, with crisp lines. The harpist was quite busy describing the shimmering water. The animals at the witch's brewing scene elicited a few laughs from the audience.

That the opera is in Czech adds a degree of exoticism to it. However, with subtitles it could be in Italian, French, or even English! I did learn the word “Yeda” means “alas”, though.

All said, however, this is not a bad opera to see. Except my expectations were very high. I postponed my trip to Hong Kong so I wouldn't miss this episode, after all.

I have not been able to locate a review of the current performance. A New York Times review of a 2004 performance gave high marks to Renee Fleming. The reviewer thought she did well even during the time she was mute and didn't sing.

[Note added 4/6/09] I managed to find the New York Times review of the current performance. The reviewer thought highly of the performance, but was non-plused as to why the audience wasn't more enthusiastic. A case of the masses must be properly educated?