i’Since I last reported on one of David McVicar’s masterful operatic productions [See 21st Century Verdi: Hvorostovsky, Ciofi, Kim, Aceto in McVicar’s Illuminating “Rigoletto” – ROH Covent Garden, October 11, 2010],, the Scottish stage director has been knighted as part of the Queen Elizabeth II’s 2012 Birthday Honors.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago has mounted his latest new production, a profoundly moving presentation of Antonin Dvorak’s masterpiece “Rusalka”.
[Below: Scottish production designer Sir David McVicar; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
Barely qualifying as a 20th century work (premiering in March 1901), “Rusalka’s” acceptance into the core repertory of international opera houses has been slow, although interest has been rising perceptibly in recent years.
The opera’s first mounting by a major American company did not occur until the San Diego Opera presented it in 1975. Now part of the performance history of both the Met and San Francisco Opera, the new production for Chicago represents “Rusalka’s” first Lyric Opera performances ever.
Yet, “Rusalka” is unquestionably one of the 20th century’s most lushly-scored, intensely melodic works, and appeals to both adventuresome opera-goers and those who prefer the Romantic era repertory. As an added bonus to opera company managements, the opera’s mysterious messages align with the 21st century’s taste for epic fantasies.
Its themes of the primeval beauty of the “natural order” (here populated by water sprites, goblins, and forest witches) set in conflict with the artifices of “civilization” resounds with contemporary sensibilities and with the dramatic and artistic instincts of Sir David.
The Prince’s Dreamworld
McVicar presents the opera as the Prince’s champagne-sotted dream. In a clever use of the opera’s short prelude, a pantomime takes place before a curtain at whose center is a landscape painting of the tree-shielded lakeshore inherited by the rusalki.
The Prince (Brandon Jovanovich) is obviously in an affection-stressing argument with the Foreign Princess (Ekaterina Gubanova), all relations with whom he breaks off at the end of the second act. The Prince drunkenly falls to the stage floor, when the curtain rises onto the festivities of the three wood-nymphs (charmingly sung by Lauren Snouffer, J’nai Bridges and Cynthia Hanna.)
The Prince, rising in his dream from the stage floor, wanders throughout the strange happenings of the forest spirits. Among them is a rusalka (the generic name for finless, bipedal, water-sprites that lure handsome men to their deaths-by-drowning).
Rebelling against the murderous tendencies of her soulless species, the Rusalka of the opera’s title confesses to her father, Vodnik the water goblin, that she wishes to leave her life as a spirit of the natural world so as to become human and to have a soul.
She is driven to experience love’s passions, having in her watery form, enveloped the swimming Prince with her body. The forest witch Jezibaba reluctantly grants her wish on the conditions that as a human she will not be able to speak and that both she and her lover will be destroyed if he proves unfaithful.
The Prince falls in love with her and takes her to his castle, where her voicelessness cannot prevail against the manipulative Foreign Princess, and she returns to her lake.
The Prince, follows her to the haunted lake, and knowing that the consequence will be his death, persuades her to kiss him.
Ana Maria Martinez’ Rusalka
Any Rusalka has the task of being onstage for much of the opera, mute for part of the second act, but with a major aria in each act (two sweet and contemplative and one, towards the end of the second act, furiously dramatic).
McVicar has added physically demanding stage directions. Most of her time onstage requires Martinez to adopt an awkwardly bent posture, that symbolizes Rusalka’s discomfort when present in human society.
[Below: The moonlit water-sprite, Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez) emerges from the lake; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Martinez’ beautifully crafted performance was of sufficient stature to rank as a highlight of her career to date, and, even more importantly, as a milestone in the performance history of the opera.
Brandon Jovanovich’s Prince
There has been a long-time attraction of tenor Brandon Jovanovich to the role of the Prince, which he sang at the Minnesota Opera long before he took on the Wagnerian roles of Lohengrin and of Siegmund in “Die Walkuere” [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich].
Jovanovich, by restoring this role to his active repertory, brings his soaring heldentenor and heroic looks to this luscious role.
McVicar, by enveloping all action in the dreams of the Prince’s conflicted soul, torn between the stifling, conventional world of the Foreign Princess and his wild, untamed passion that he feels for Rusalka, adds layers of psychological interest to the story.
[Below: The Prince (Brandon Jovanovich) prepares for his wedding at his castle; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
It’s a cliche to describe the Prince’s fate as Tristanesque, but there is unquestionably a shared desire for oblivion between the Breton Knight and the ruler of the castle that represents the civilization beyond the supernatural world of the lake.
As the Prince begs for the kiss that will end his existence, I can hear in Jovanovich’s expressive vocal line the voice of a future Tristan.
Eric Owens’ Vodnik
[Below: Eric Owens as Vodnik the Water Goblin; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Goblins generally have a poor reputation among speakers of English, but Vodnik is perhaps the most perceptive thinker among the opera’s characters, and, in many ways, the most endearing. He also has some of most affecting music to sing.
Owens played the role superbly, making a strong impression as a Rusalka’s deeply concerned parent, as well as a guardian of nature. It is he who decries the human pollution of their watery world.
Jill Grove’s Jezibaba
As an admirer of Jill Grove’s mezzo-soprano voice, the idea of her performing the larger-than-life role of Jezibaba in a McVicar production, was more than intriguing.
[Below: Jill Grove as Jezibaba; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Bringing the secure power needed in the lower register for this role, Grove’s characterization of the judgmental forest witch has proven to be one of the memorable operatic assignments.
When Jezibaba is present, she is accompanied by three large ravens, who add their amusing bits to her magic spells.
Ekaterina Gubanova’s Foreign Princess
Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, in her Lyric Opera debut, gave a forceful performance as Rusalka’s rival for the Prince’s passions.
[Below: the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, right) is the object of desire of the Foreign Princess (Ekaterina Gubanova, left); edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
In McVicar’s conceptualization, the Foreign Princess is not only the rival, but is the polar opposite of Rusalka in the natural world vs destructive civilization theme that McVicar finds inherent in the opera. Gubanova proved that she has the vocal and dramatic skills to carry off this assignment.
Philip Horst’s Gamekeeper and Daniela Mack’s Kitchen Boy
McVicar gives important weight to a scene in which the Castle’s Gameskeeper and a Kitchen Boy (who both reappear in unusual circumstances in the third act) discuss the Prince’s behavior in bringing the mysterious Rusalka to his Castle and announcing his intention to marry her.
[Below: the scene in the kitchen ; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Daniela Mack (who will share the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” with Ana Maria Martinez at the Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 Summer Festival) made a strong impression singing the Kitchen Boy’s jaunty music. Philip Horst played the role of the Gameskeeper with distinction.
John Macfarlane’s sets and Moritz Junge’s costumes
In McVicar’s conception the natural world is being encroached upon by civilization (e.g., a dam affecting the natural movement of the lake’s waters.) This theme is most dramatically demonstrated in Act II with its first scene (the kitchen) dominated by a large animal carcass, and its second scene a castle hunting lodge with rows of the heads of bucks mounted on the side walls.
[Below: the John Macfarlane sets for the castle hall with mounted heads of buck deer; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The costumes of Moritz Junge, consisting of late Victorian dress for civilization and fantastic fare for the dreamworld, were always interesting and often enchanting.
[Below: Vodnik (Eric Owens, front, left corner); edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The importance of dance and choral work in this production
The production incorporated extensive use of dancers, not only for the castle ball, but for much of the supernatural world – Jezibaba’s ravens and the water-sprites and forest spirits.
The principal dancers were Kristina Ancil, Paul Christiano, Veronica Guadalupe, Elizabeth Luse, Christina Luzwick, Luke Hanley, Sarah Olson, Todd Rhoades, James Monroe Stevko, and Teanna Zarro. Andrew George is the Choreographer, August Tye the Ballet Master.
The Chorus Master is Michael Black. Sir Andrew Davis conducted.
[Below: Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, center, in wedding gown) is surrounded by ballerinas who throw rose petals; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Final Thoughts and Recommendation
I believe that Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, will continue to gain in popularity, and will secure its position in the 21st century standard repertory to a degree that has eluded other well-regarded Czech operas.
[Below: Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, adove) has performed the kiss that ends the life of the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, below); edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The McVicar production, as it moves beyond Chicago to other major opera centers, will prove an important contribution to fulfilling this prediction. (The fact that Lyric Opera had to add a performance to meet demand will be noted by other opera company managements.)
I strongly recommend this opera, and especially this McVicar production and cast, for both the newcomer to opera and the veteran opera-goer.