Houston Grand Opera imported Melly Still’s production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, created for England’s 2009 Glyndebourne Festival. The principal singers in HGO’s strong cast are Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, the star of Still’s Glyndebourne production, as the Rusalka, and New York tenor Brian Jagde, in his HGO debut, as the Prince.
Ana Maria Martinez’ Rusalka
Martinez brought to the title role her dramatic portrayal of the nameless rusalka (a species of water-sprite, whose place in folklore is similar to that of the Little Mermaid and Undine).
Martinez beautifully sang the melody-soaked arias of the first and third acts, while meeting the challenges of the physically demanding performance throughout the evening. Displaying the dark, lyric quality one associates with her voice, she masterfully navigated the psychologically intense second act. There her character is a spellbound mute for much of the act, after which, her desire for a “human” relationship dashed, she abandons hope in a cathartic outburst.
[Below: Ana Maria Martinez as Rusalka; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Martinez has been a dominant presence as this opera’s visibility rises in Britain and the United States, having also starred in another important British production [see Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014]. Houston’s audiences experienced an artist whose dramatic insights and vocal prowess define how the role should be sung.
Brian Jagde’s Prince
Brian Jagde was impressive from his first entrance, displaying the lyric beauty and vocal power that suggests a heldentenor in the making. Possessing a brilliant and focused voice, Jagde was a handsome Prince, with the ability to project the emotions of this character’s inner conflicts. The final scene, the Prince’s liebestod, was especially affecting.
[Below: Brian Jagde as the Prince; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Jagde’s current repertory is dominated by the great tenor roles of Puccini and Bizet’s “Carmen” [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde], with upcoming assignments in operas by Verdi and other Italian masters. As a winner of the Birgit Nilsson prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest in Beijing (for artistry in works of Wagner and Richard Strauss), one can imagine, later in his career, Jagde singing virtually all of Wagner’s heroic tenor roles.
Richard Paul Fink’s Vodnik
Richard Paul Fink possesses a sonorous baritone well-suited for the large and melodious role of the Rusalka’s father, the fearsome Vodnik, a water spirit or goblin.
[Below: Richard Paul Fink as Vodnik; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
A member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio Artists in the mid-1980s, who sang Vodnik in Houston in 1991, Fink was a strong presence as a father who is deeply disapproving of his daughter’s course of action.
Jill Grove’s Jezibaba
Jill Grove was the duplicitous Jezibaba. She enlisted the wide range of her mezzo-soprano, which includes abundant strength in its contralto depths, to portray the inherent menace in the character.
Grove, who also appeared with Martinez in the McVicar production of “Rusalka” in Chicago, cited above, made her mark as the only unambiguously malevolent character in the opera.
[Below: Jill Grove as Jezibaba; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The witch’s deceits assured that it would be impossible, even at the ruinous costs that Jezibaba imposed, for the Rusalka to gain the happiness as a human she so desired.
Maida Hundeling’s Foreign Princess, Keith Jameson’s Gamekeeper, Mane Galoyan’s Kitchen Girl and Other Artists
German soprano Maida Hundeling had the vocal power and glamorous appearance to be effective as the Foreign Princess, the rival for the Prince’s affections.
[Below: the Foreign Princess (Maida Hundeling, left) seeks the attentions of the Prince (Brian Jagde, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Other artists with particularly noteworthy performances were American character tenor Keith Jameson and Armenian soprano Mane Galoyan, who made a spectacular duo as the gossipy Gamekeeper and Kitchen Girl.
[Below: the Gamekeeper (Keith Jameson, front center, facing front) discusses the household situation with the Kitchen Girl (Mane Galoyan, front right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
American soprano D’Ana Lombard, American mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky and American mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin were the three Dryads (wood nymphs).
Harry Bicket led the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra in a riverting performance, immersing the audience in Dvorak’s lushly sonic splendors.
Melly Still’s production
The first major success of British director Melly Still was her 2005 staging National Theater staging of Helen Edmundson’s play Coram Boy at London’s prestigious National Theater. That achievement led to an invitation to make her debut as an opera director for the 75th Glyndebourne Festival.
There she teamed with her Coram Boy colleague, British lighting director Paule Constable and with British set and costume designer Rae Smith. British director Donna Stirrup staged the production’s revival in Houston.
Contemporary directors have found quite different ways to approach this folk-tale based opera. Its eroticism invites pychoanalytic interpretations, but there are other approaches as well. McVicar’s production emphasized the environmental destruction of the natural world by humankind.
Still concentrates not on the natural world, but the supernatural – a world of rusalki, water goblins, dryads and witches.
[Below: The Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, front left center, in white) unsuccessfully implores her sisters to allow jer to return to them; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
As Still explores the interface between the supernatural and human worlds, she emphasizes the different world-views of immortal beings and humans with brief, but passionate existences. Here the utterances of the skeptical Vodnik have a meaning that might be lost (or less interesting) in other interpretations.
“Rusalka” is still a relatively new addition to the basic repertory that had not ever been performed in the United States before 1975 when the San Diego Opera first mounted it.
The theme of erotic love affairs between immortal beings and humans is the fodder for the popular stories of current and recent network and cable television series. Within the fans of such genres there may be potential new audiences for Dvorak’s work, whose seductive melodies and erotic situations could prove a catalyst for introducing such audiences to the art form of opera.
[Below: The mortal Prince (Brian Jagde, left), deeply remorseful, expresses the wish to kiss the immortal Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, right), even though he knows the kiss will end his life; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
I recommend the opera, this cast, and the production both to the veteran opera-goer and to the person new to opera.