“Rusalka” Proves an Elusive Fairy Tale

Madison Opera closes season with Dvorak’s on-again, off-again near-masterpiece


What to do with Rusalka? Just like the Prince in Dvorak and Kvapil’s telling of the Czech version of “The Little Mermaid,” we can never fully possess her as a woman, and, while he may decide that as a water sprite she really is to die for, not every audience member is ready to go that far.

The work has tantalized yours truly for many decades, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, the 1901 work didn’t have its U.S. premiere until 1975, and that in San Diego. In those days, the Metropolitan Opera was still deferring even Russian opera to rare touring appearances of the Bolshoi Opera. Not long after, the most captivating aria of the work, “Song to the Moon,” began a ubiquitous course that ran from recitals by Frederica von Stade and Renee Fleming, to being lovingly adopted in films and commercials. To top it all off, I decided early on that Dvorak was the most underrated of all the great composers; obviously he is anything but unknown, yet I kept discovering more and more of his works in all genres that begged for more air time and concert hall programs. Could Rusalka be one of those?

It wasn’t too many years ago I finally got around to seeing and hearing the complete opera on a DVD. “Song to the Moon” unfolds in the middle of Act I, and my fingers were crossed that some other stretch of music in the nearly two hours that remained would transport me the same way, but it never quite happened.

All that being said, I was thrilled when it was announced a year ago that Madison Opera would close artistic director John DeMain’s 25th season with Dvorak’s elusive work, and I made sure to clear my schedule to attend the final performance on Sunday. First kudos actually go to general director Kathryn Smith for putting it on the schedule and assembling the usual strong cast of up-and-comers (as well as those who are well on their way to significant careers), as well as bringing in another director making their company debut. Smith has frequently given us operas that she has been passionate about all of her life, and her program note in that respect was a delight to read.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the production was the sets, dominated by projections of thick woods, and water landscapes (sometimes with wavy visual effects that never looked clumsy or contrived. There were some audible oohs and aahs from the Overture Hall as soon as the curtain rose, and the forest/river/lake setting of the outer acts were consistently spellbinding. (The production was constructed and rented from Minnesota Opera).

Still, one thought that came at the first intermission was that if the sets/production threaten to become the brightest star of the performance, that can be a problem. Fortunately we had plenty of fine singing, some of it great. The title role was created by soprano Emily Birsan, who continues to grow in both artistry and in the size of roles here since here Madison Opera debut in 2010. Having an aria in front of you such as “Song to the Moon” is a double-edged sword: it’s been sung so much now, and by the greatest divas who don’t have to be concerned with flowing gowns and clambering in and out of fissures in the ground, that it must be a conundrum as to how to pull it off. (She is pictured above, courtesy of James Gill, during that aria). Birsan was slightly cautious, not providing the biggest climax we are used to hearing, but gets high marks for expressivity throughout. But it should be said that in the second half of Act II and in the final act, she really opened up, almost as if she had been freed by the burden of not worrying about hitting the “big hit” of the show out of the park.

The Prince who, at first sight, makes Rusalka desire human form, was sung by John Lindsey. He made his company debut last summer at Opera in the Park, but this was his first stage appearance. The 33-year old has been described as a “budding heldentenor” by DeMain, and we had ample vocal evidence that this may indeed be the case. That rarest of vocal categories is not usually mature in a voice until the age of forty; more to the point is that Lindsey should continue climbing higher among regional companies—and beyond—with the tools already at his disposal. While he sounds a bit more comfortable in the lower half of his range (who isn’t!), his high notes were never forced or lacked enough of a powerful ring. We hope to see him back in Madison in future seasons.

One could hardly have experienced a greater vocal contrast to the two leads than in the role of the witch, Jezibaba, brought to three-dimensional life in her company debut by Lindsay Amman. Never resorting to cheap cackles or easy caricature, Amman displayed an impressive range and the ability to add a range of color, particularly in the lower passages.

The other company debut of note among the singers was Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess. She used her strong voice to project icy indignation (she arrives in Act II expecting to eventually wed the Prince, only to find him embracing Rusalka). She also showed some emotional range later in the act, and major stage presence.

Speaking of Act II, this is where the opera is consistently riveting, despite the lack of a “hit” aria. Rusalka’s deal for human form requires her to be mute, which is not surprisingly rather confusing for a Prince who sees this beauty offering everything except being able to say “I love you.” This fascinating act opens with the two of them in a bedroom of his castle, and in the midst of his imploring her to open up to him, the Foreign Princess espies them as she enters and keeps her distance. What was in effect half of a love duet from the Prince is completed vocally by the Foreign Princess; the emotional dynamic is compelling. The music, too, contains a greater range of expression in this act (although the score is filled with countless gestures and stretches of instrumental beauty throughout). DeMain clearly relished his chance to bring this score to life, and the players from the Madison Symphony provided shimmering radiance and vivid colors all afternoon.

The director, also making her company debut, was Keturah Strickann. I can’t help but think that directing a fairy tale poses special challenges. What was clear that, as I think most great directors do, is to get the details right, the things that make the relationships onstage appear genuine. Again, this was seen to greatest effect among the odd love triangle participants in Act II, but there were nice touches too for Vodnik, the Wood Goblin. This can be a tricky role, and William Meinert, in his company debut as well, made the most of it, especially in the final act.

So what did we learn in the end? Certainly that opera is, and always has been, a crapshoot. Of over 40,000 operas composed in just over four hundred years, not more than 200 can be said to have achieved a place in the standard repertoire. There are reasons why we generally know some operas only by one transcendent aria (or even sometimes just an overture). But Rusalka, for all its teasing us into wishing for just a bit more, is not one of those operas. It deserves to be heard—and needs to be seen. Once again we are grateful for Madison Opera in bringing it to us.

And in case you hadn’t heard, next season will bring us a true classic, Verdi’s La Traviata, the 2016 opera that continues to reap admiration, Fellow Travelers, and Offenbach’s fizzy romp, Orpheus in the Underworld. And don’t forget Madison Opera’s summer gift to the city, Opera in the Park, on July 20.

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