By Caldwell Titcomb
Note: Rusalka is transferring to the West End’s London Coliseum from March 28 to April 15, 2020.
Czech opera is not often mounted in these parts. The two major composers were Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). The latter wrote ten operas, some comic and some tragic. Among Czech natives, the palm goes to the latter’s Rusalka, the composer’s penultimate opera, written in 1900.
One reason for steering clear of Czech opera in the West is that the language, unlike Italian, piles up consonants and is thus not very grateful for singing. Still, New York’s Metropolitan Opera has included Rusalka in this season’s repertory, and the Boston Lyric Opera is currently offering the work as a co-production with the Minnesota Opera. It would seem that Rusalka has not previously been staged in Boston.
The composer called the piece a “lyric fairy tale.” But it should not be assumed that it is a they-lived-happily-ever-after story. The libretto came from the pen of the young poet/playwright Jaroslav Kvapil, who borrowed content from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and other sources.
Rusalka is a water-sprite who is attracted to a prince who comes to swim in the lake. She pleas with her goblin-father Vodnik to become human in order to be with the prince. Reluctantly he says that her wish can be accomplished only through a potion concocted by the witch Ježibaba, who cautions that Rusalka will be rendered mute.
The second act takes place in the prince’s castle, where his wedding to Rusalka is being prepared. But his affection turns to a visiting foreign princess, who winds up scorning them both. The third act finds Rusalka back in her watery domain, where she is shunned by her sister sprites and becomes a death-spirit lethal to humans. The remorseful prince appears, and, though warned that an embrace will prove fatal, he kisses her and dies, while she is condemned to eternal solitary wandering.
Dvořák was strongly attracted to the world of nature, to which he turned numerous times. So we find among his works “In Nature’s Realm,” “The Water Goblin,” The Noon Witch,” The Wild Dove,” “Silent Woods,” and “From the Bohemian Forest.” The middle act of “Rusalka” contains some wonderful music, but it is the framing acts that spurred him to a truly exalted level.
The title role here is sung by Marquita Lister, a 1983 winner of the New England Metropolitan Opera Auditions. She has gone on to roles by Mozart, Bizet and Verdi, along with repeated appearances in the title role of Porgy and Bess (she is the national spokesperson for the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation). In her last appearance with the Boston Lyric Opera (2001) she memorably sang the title role in Strauss’s Salome. She still has a sumptuous soprano voice, and she gets to sing the work’s most famous number, the first act’s “Song to the Moon” (ushers should not be seating latecomers during this gem).
The most dazzling aspect of this production is the Boston debut of tenor Bryan Hymel as the prince. One can understand why he won three competitions last year. He has a bright, ringing tone, secure in range and pitch, and capable of heroic power. He also brings the experience of having already sung this role in Europe. His credits include Bellini, Janacek, Weber, Zemlinsky, and Puccini. I’ll gladly go to hear him in anything he wants to sing.
There is solid work from bass John Cheek as the water-goblin, and from soprano Rochelle Bard as the Foreign Princess. Mezzosoprano Nancy Maultsby is an effective witch, particularly when listing the potion ingredients as an echo of the witches’ brew in Act 4 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The traditional act-two ballet slot is filled by five pairs of dancers (in black and gray) from the Boston Ballet II.
No small contributions to this show are the many remarkable projections devised by Wendall K. Harrington. As appropriate she gives us an underwater milieu, plenty of vegetation, a starry sky, a full moon, and even briefly a hunted doe in the forest.
Dvořák was a superb composer – properly encouraged and supported repeatedly by Brahms (who wrote no operas). He was a master orchestrator, and Rusalka is full of wonderful writing for the woodwind. After two years Ari Pelto is back as conductor, and he is getting splendid playing from his 52 instrumentalists.
One would have liked more effective staging from director Eric Simonson. Particularly needed is attention to Rusalka’s acting. She moves lethargically like some kind of zombie. Surely a water-sprite should be more sprightly (or spritely).
This engaging production, sung in Czech with English surtitles, continues at the Shubert Theatre through March 31.