Thursday, January 28, 2016
Alongside its stunning production of The Marriage of Figaro, Houston Grand Opera is currently staging Antonín Dvořák's Rusalka, a tragic tale of a water nymph that has much in common with the familiar story of the Little Mermaid. It's a simple opera in many ways: Rusalka, a water nymph in a lake in a wood, falls in love with the Prince who sometimes comes to the lake to swim. She tells her father of her wish to become human; he warns her of dire consequences, but nonetheless sends her to the witch Ježibaba for help.
Alas, Rusalka must give up her voice to become human and has difficulty conveying her feelings to the fickle Prince. Unable to hold his attention, she is then cursed to return to the waters as a spirit of death, neither alive nor dead. The only way to escape this fate would be to kill the Prince by her own hand, but Rusalka, still in love, refuses. Now remorseful, the Prince returns to her, but it is too late and they cannot both be saved. Rusalka resists but finally kisses the prince, allowing him to die peacefully while she returns to the lake, where she must endure the curse for eternity in exchange for that one perfect moment of love.
Naturally, the music is lovely (duh, Dvořák...). The staging is very creative, especially in Acts I and III. The production incorporates an unusual amount of ballet, with a white doe whose ears and antlers (not that female deer usually have antlers) are provided by "hidden" dancers dressed all in black. It's a lovely effect. When Rusalka enters on wires, her tail is also moved in part by the black-clad dancers, twitching with emotion much like a cat's tail. Several additional mermaids appear on wires in the first and third acts. It's slightly odd that the audience perspective and the scenery don't change, and that the mermaids who are underwater come from above when we're still technically in the woods, but the set does a wonderful job of representing both milieus at the same time, and it's easy to let your mind's eye believe it.
The only disconnects for me came in Act II. Here, the castle servants are gossiping while preparing for the Prince's marriage to Rusalka even while he shows signs of losing interest. The gamekeeper and a kitchen maid (his niece, I think?) are dressed in costumes that looked they belonged in a World War I (or maybe II?) medical field tent. The kitchen maid's attire was echoed by the other female servants, but something about their costumes looked less nurse- and more servant-like. I did enjoy the parade of colorful costumes worn by the guests, but then I was once again distracted when roses were strewn all over the center ramp, and I spent the rest of the act worried someone was going to fall on them. It was just a little ... messy. Similarly, earlier on when the servants are preparing for the festivities, they trot up and down little staircases attached to the ramps. I liked the visual effect of their bustling, but it was also a little noisy.
Another interesting costume effect was the white ball gown in which the servants dress Rusalka. It was asymmetric, protruding stiffly to one side while she continues to get used to having legs instead of a tail. I thought this nicely conveyed how stiff and unnatural Rusalka felt among humans. I did not like it quite as much when in Act III, Rusalka wears a slightly modified version of the dress that is eventually lit from underneath the skirt with what I think are intended to be little fairy or spirit lights, meant to lure mortals to their death. I love the idea, but the lights were far too vivid to appear spirit-like to me. I would have preferred much weaker lights scattered among the scenery with Rusalka's lights moving among them, almost but not quite blending in. I think that might have better conveyed something more mysterious, something a person might be lured to follow.
Musically, I have no complaints. The role of Rusalka is sung by Ana María Martinez, an HGO favorite (and former studio artist) that we've seen here in Madame Butterfly and Carmen. She transforms very believably from the slightly eerie nymph to the unsure young girl who cannot compete with a sophisticated foreign princess -- in fact, their juxtaposition reminded me very much of Maria and the Baroness in The Sound of Music. In any case, Ms. Martinez has a beautiful voice as well as the grace of movement to fit such a physical role.
Handsome tenor Brian Jagde sang the role of the Prince, his voice truly rising above the music on occasion. Also particularly notable was baritone Richard Paul Fink (another HGO studio alum) as Rusalka's father, Vodník. The music itself, sung in Czech, was stirring, although I felt there were at least three moments on which the third act could have ended before it actually did. That's not really the kind of thing you're going to mess with, though, because it would also mean missing out on some of the orchestral music, and it's hard to have too much Dvořák.
All in all, this is well worth seeing for a tragic, grown-up take on a centuries-old myth. Performances are on Friday January 29, Sunday January 31, Saturday February 6, Tuesday February 9, and Friday February 12, 2016.