Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Shoddy New Rusalka

Dvořák’s Rusalka
Metropolitan Opera
February 17, 2017

Rusalka reunites with the lover of her dreams
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: I had a unique experience with Rusalka at the Met. Settling into the opening bars of the overture, Mark Elders’ subdued rendition of Dvořák’s score lulled me into a state of relax in which the outside world slowly faded into the background. Although I was really ready for a darker, more uncanny take on this rather visceral and often folkloristic soundscape that is as leavened with joy as it is laden with portentous foreboding, nevertheless I found myself immersed in a parallel musical universe. No passage embodies these dynamic dichotomies more than the prancing chorus of water nymphs with their refrain of “Ho, ho ho!” that is both appealing and strange. In any case, the peaceful salve of the luscious music hit the spot.

I wish I could say the same thing for the staging as it proceeded to set the tone for the story. Mary Zimmerman’s new production really left me lukewarm in the First Act. Rather than a naturalistic set, Daniel Ostling’s design presents the woodland grove of the water nymphs as a claustrophobic rectangular room with the sky and trees painted on the walls. The hardwood flooring did nothing to suggest an outdoor environment and the lake of the water sprite was nothing more than a rectangular opening in the floor. The only even semi-realistic detail is the tree in the middle of the stage on which Rusalka will perch during her Song to the Moon. The blatant staginess of the overall design made this lone naturalistic detail seem out of place.

I see a starkness
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Zimmerman’s production looked like the Met ran out of money from the get go. The first act is all about the setting in the woods, lakes and rivers. While I do not necessarily need something overly naturalistic, plopping a tree in the middle of a hardwood floor with an uneven hole and scattering a bunch of round plastic water lilies came across as a glorified rehearsal, with hand me down props.

The Natural world housed in a room
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Water is such an important plot element. Rusalka is a nymph made of water and falls in love with the Prince while he’s swimming the lake she inhabits. In this production, we need to believe that the lake is that spot where a handful of floorboards came off. To make things worse, when the Water Sprite comes out of the “lake,” poor Eric Owens had to jump awkwardly on those plastic leaves and then roll himself on the ground back to the hole in the floor. Again, it looked like a rehearsal in a run down theater, really painful to watch. Hardwood floor scattered with yellow plastic flowers was also all we got for the supposedly romantic encounter between the newly transformed Rusalka and the Prince. I’m not against minimalism, but this one seemed to lack any concept.  

Rusalka invokes the moon
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich
Lui: One of the clever touches, though, was the dress Rusalka wears when we first encounter her. Before she makes a deal with the witch Jezibaba to get her legs, she is burdened by a long trailing “aquatic” dress covered in water lilies that she struggles to move in. And indeed she is forced to swing it around ponderously until her transformation occurs.

I really only began to give the production the benefit of the doubt in Act II, when the ideas behind certain conceits revealed themselves. The action has now moved to the Prince’s palace. The same rectangular space including the same wide wide beam hardwood floors, that once “housed” the natural setting, now redressed, stands for a modest princely parlor.

They are still skimping on the flourishes of grandeur, but the parallel shape of the space seems significant. In one corner is a heaping mound of deer and antelope skulls all with glorious antlers that stand like a neglected pile of hunting trophies, denoting an abusive human attitude toward nature. The thematic tensions begin to emerge. In Zimmerman’s take this seems to be a story about the relationship between human society and the natural world.

Lei: It is true that the Act II sets looked a bit more together and engaged more the eye but I don’t see how they conveyed any strong vision. I did not necessarily got the man vs. nature theme, seems like a lot to ask from a pile of antlers.

Rusalka is out of her element in the human world
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Having gained a human form but having lost her voice in the process, Rusalka is now out of her element amidst the humans. Austin McCormick choreographed an extended dance scene that plays out during the ballet interlude in which we see Rusalka struggling to find her place in this new world. She wavers between fascination and terror as she takes in the opulent display of a dozen or so male and female dancers decked out in elegant evening wear who enact all the rituals of human courtship with its formal introductions, posing and posturing, seductions, and being swept off your feet by the consummation of love. Rusalka has a hard time finding her footing in the machine-like rapture of the social system that drives the human world, which the choreography beautifully enacted through movement and dance.

The water nymph has trouble fitting in
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
I finally warmed up to an interpretation of the idea behind the production as a whole in the Third Act, which I found most moving of all. Although I wouldn't call it terribly compelling theater in terms of spectacle, I nevertheless came to appreciate the subtle ways it posed an interpretative problem with which to engage.

All is askew and in tatters by the end
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
We now return to the woodland glade that has been disfigured almost beyond recognition. The set, which have been reduced to nothing more than a set, is now intentionally crooked. The walls with their painted forest scene have been shredded revealing the raw two-by-fours of the set’s skeleton, an intentional metatheatrical nod to the fictiveness of the space of the stage dressed with the simplest of sets.

The suggestion is that the destruction of the sets reflect Rusalka’s subjective perception of the world she once called home. Everything has changed now since she has been disabused of her illusions. In fact, in retrospect, in Egan to think that her subjective understanding was projected onto the natural world from the very beginning. When she sang to the moon in Act I she conjured the grand lunar body in the sky with a wave of her hand and she could even stop it temporarily in its slow march across the backdrop as she sang. However, at the same time, we find out from the Water Sprite in Act III that the damage was caused by a human. The Met’s supertitles render his explanation to the nymphs: “A human has spoiled our waters.” This is what I picked up on to explain Zimmerman’s transformation of the opera into a subtle commentary on the human ability to sully nature and bring ourselves down in the process.

Natural decline and the demise of humankind
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Following the touching demise of the prince who dies in the arms of his beloved nature goddess, I couldn't help but think of the timeliness of the message for the world today. So much for the escapist pleasures I experienced when the opera began. I was suddenly confronted with one of the most pressing issues we face.

There is only one way to break the curse
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: I found the Third Act sets as the most irritating at all. The sets here were just utterly trashed and dimly lit, as if they got abandoned or vandalized. Seems a little bit of a stretch to me to put so much emphasis on the line about humans spoiling waters, frankly. The idea there is that the Prince spoiled Rusalka (who used to be a nymph made of water). Other than Rusalka being distraught, the plot does not really justify a trashing of the sets. I usually like it when the production demands some extra thinking from the audience, unraveling interesting interpretations of a work. Take, for example, Zimmerman’s take on Sonnambula, which I personally love.

The problem with this Rusalka production is that it seemed to have some metatheatrical ambitions that were never fully realized or fleshed out with any sort of conviction. The result was a half-baked, cheap-looking staging. What a waste!

Lui: As one of the divas whom the Met is currently pushing, Kristine Opolais is a stunningly beautiful singing-actress. She is a pleasure to watch. After seeing her in several roles over the last couple of seasons, however, she hasn't showed me that she a voice suited for the grand hall of the house. It may very well be that she can vocally captivate an audience in some of the smaller European houses that are more intimate in scale. I have yet to be wowed by her sound here. She tackled the famous Song to the Moon modestly well but it wasn't transporting, as is often the case with the other roles in her repertory at the Met. As an actress she is more compelling. The way she played the final death scene here was as moving as I have ever seen her. It plays out much like the conclusion of the Manon Lescaut we saw her in last season, only here I found her performance more emotionally riveting.  

The irresistible charms of the Foreign Princess
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Agree. I don’t see the fuss around Kristine Opolais. She is definitely stunning but voice-wise she yet has to convince me. In this case, however, it didn't hurt that she had a strong leading man to play off against. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince was excellent. He carried the longing of this man who gets drawn into an unusual relationship with ardor and vigor from beginning to end, but also convincingly showing other colors. This Prince is also fickle and quick to change his passions when they don’t go how he expects, falling for the easier to understand “Foreign Princess.” He represents the human race as unreliable and untrustworthy. But, he also comes back strong with heartfelt desperation as he realizes his true love and dies in Rusalka’s arms. Soprano Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess was impressive, exceedingly loud in the face of Rusalka’s silence, she displayed an exuberant larger-than-life vocal performance, with fire and aggression that were a pleasure to hear.

Jezibaba conjures cures and curses
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Another impressive singer was mezzo Jamie Barton in the role of the witch Jezibaba. This lady has a sound that is luscious, enveloping and rich and this role seems to be written for her voice, menacing yet so melodic. She also seemed to embody the harsh witch with gusto and panache and just stole the show every time she was on stage.

The Water Sprite holds court in the woodland glade
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
As the Water Sprite, bass-baritone Eric Owens was thundering and authoritative, but suffered from poor costume choices, as he was sporting a frog-like outfit that came across as a caricature, at odds with the seriousness of his role.

The Met's previous production had a lushness this one lacks
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Mary Zimmerman’s production is decidedly minimalist when compared to the lush Otto Schenk production it rather unnecessarily replaces. It seems like a shame to have retired it. Was it worn out or did that one belong to Renee Fleming, for whom it served as a vehicle to her own notoriety as the great reviver of this otherwise neglected masterpiece? In order to launch a new generation of rising stars is perhaps explains why we needed something new, just not this one.

Lei & Lui

Jezibaba goes steampunk
Photo credit: Ken Howard

No comments:

Post a Comment