Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mortal Longings

Sam Shirakawa attended the Opening Night of Rusalka on Monday night. Here's his squib:

Dvorak : Rusalka Season Premiere

Metropolitan Opera
9 March 2009

Why would an immortal want to shuffle onto this mortal coil? An answer is to be heard in Antonin Dvorak’s most famous opera Rusalka, now on the boards at the Metropolitan Opera.

Why, Love for a mortal, of course!

But renunciation on such a scale demands commensurate sacrifices. Once the beautiful water nymph Rusalka falls in love with a mortal prince, who has taken a dip in her pool, if you’ll pardon the expression, she must give up all her supernatural perks in order to join him in the earthly universe, as well as submit herself to being stricken mute.

As fairy tales would have it -- The Little Mermaid for example -- her beloved prince rejects her. Why any guy in a marrying frame of mind would snub a prospective spouse who can’t talk back or sass him is a mystery librettist Jaroslav Kvapil never solves. And the impediment also creates a problem for Dvorak because it prevents his lead character from uttering a peep for a significant portion of the opera.

But when Rusalka does speak, she sings gloriously, especially when she’s portrayed so movingly by Renée Fleming, who has also taken the role with success in the Met’s past two revivals of Otto Schenk’s delightful 1993 production. Now that she’s mistress of the part, the question is whether you like her interpretation. She’s not nearly as other-worldly as, say, Gabriella Beňačková, but you’re hard put to reject the passion she puts into a character, who gets the cold shoulder from the mortal to whom she is fatally attracted.

The object of Rusalka’s affections is taken by Aleksandrs Antonenko, making his Met debut. There’s no doubt that the young Latvian newcomer can interpret beefy parts, but the question is whether you like his voice. If you’re used to big-vibrato tenors from the former Eastern Bloc, Antonenko’s voice, despite an occasional squeeze at the top, will please you. If you’re accustomed to rapid-fire vibrato in your heavyweight tenors, you may find him an acquired taste -- though worth the required patience.

Stephanie Blythe drew audience appreciation for her humor-laced inflections as the witch with the right potion for what ails you. As the Foreign Princess, Christine Goerke effectively rendered a different kind of witch. Brenda Patterson made an impressive showing in her Met debut as one of Rusalka's playmates.

Apart from steering the performance with rhythmic incisiveness, Jiri Belohlávek inspired the Met Orchestra to produce waves of gorgeous sound.

Rusalka may be a fairy tale, but it speaks to every age. The Met’s revival also arrives at a moment in our history when it offers more than pretty music: The water nymph renounces her anxiety-free existence for an environment fraught with danger and damnation -- all for the sake of love. And what she ultimately gets is not love requited but its true and withering flip-side: indifference. Her story belongs to the long tradition of tale-telling that exposes the human soul alone, sliding into an alien societal conundrum, deprived of the assets and skills necessary for survival. Depressing maybe, if you care to view the tale as solely reflecting the maze of impecuniosity through which humankind willy-nilly is now groping. But it’s ultimately cathartic too, for unlike Rusalka, we are not, at least for the moment, alone.

Note: The Met's Rusalka has been performed whenever Schenk's Ring Cycle is mounted. Especially on matinee Saturdays. Are some or all of the sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen for both productions interchangeable? If yes, it's a shrewd move. Whodda guessed? And is Renée a standby for one of the Andrew Sisters in Walküre...?

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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