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Magisterial, When Not Maddening

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Magisterial, When Not Maddening

A flawed but memorable production of Rusalka at the Met March 17, 2017
Arts and Culture

The last time the Metropolitan Opera staged Antonín Dvořák’s hauntingly beautiful fairytale opera Rusalka, it triggered an outpouring of critical contempt. The classical music press heaped scorn on director Otto Schenk’s traditional rendering of this story of a water nymph who makes a doomed bargain in the hope of gaining human love. Schenk’s painterly production, created in 1993 and last mounted in 2014, captured the moonlit mystery of Rusalka’s sylvan glen; the critics, however, derided the staging as “Disneyesque.” The New York Times’s Zachary Wolfe and the New York Observer’s James Jorden even provided a blueprint for how the Met should stage Dvořák’s harmonically suave work, invoking two perverse maulings of the opera then in vogue in Europe. In one, director Martin Kusej parroted an actual sex-abuse case from Austria in which a father raped his captive daughter in his basement for years. In the second, director Stefan Herheim turned the ethereal Rusalka into a Berlin prostitute and turned her compassionate father, a water gnome, into a dirty old man fantasizing about his unfulfilled sex life. Needless to say, neither of these grotesque conceits had anything to do with Dvořák’s complex balance of innocence and darker passion nor with the work’s lush Romantic score. But they fulfilled the contemporary directorial mandate to destroy the narrative conventions of the past with a heavy-handed wallop of depravity and identity politics.

So there was plenty to worry about when the Met announced that it was junking the Schenk Rusalka and commissioning a new version from director Mary Zimmerman, best known for her 2002 Broadway staging of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Met general manager Peter Gelb has been under relentless pressure to import to the house the European style of revisionist stagings, known as Regietheater. Gelb’s response has broadly fallen into the following categories. He has continued to commission productions faithful to both the setting and the emotional content of an opera; Sir David McVicar’s triumphant Elizabethan production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, from 2016, represents the pinnacle of this approach. Gelb-era directors have also updated plots to modern times while preserving the original relationships between the premodern characters, glaring dramatic anachronisms be damned; Michael Mayer’s Las Vegas-themed Rigoletto exemplifies this category. Finally, the Met has introduced productions that respect a historical setting but that inject political or social “subtexts” into the work. Bart Sher’s gloomy production of Donizetti’s effervescent comedy, L’Elisir d’Amore, was an unfortunate representative of this option. (There have also been abstract productions that punt on the question of composer’s intent, such as this season’s visually mystifying Guillaume Tell, directed by Pierre Audi.)

Zimmerman’s Rusalka belongs in the “authentic setting–postmodern subtext” category. And the results follow what is known in statistics as a bimodal distribution—some magisterial wins and some thudding losses. Zimmerman had moments of inspiration and wit that showed deep sensitivity to musical significance. The production had a windfall in American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as the witch Jezibaba; Barton’s charisma and vocal power produced one of the sexiest performances of the season. But the gratuitous importation of violence and modern anomie had more to do with the contemporary mandate of demystification than with any signals in Dvořák’s soaring score or in Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto. However grateful one must be to Zimmerman’s overall fidelity to the fairytale setting, her dark directorial gloss left a sour taste.

Written in 1900, Rusalka was Dvořák’s ninth and penultimate opera; its triumphant reception in 1901 fulfilled his longstanding hope of composing an opera that would contribute to Czech nationalism. The score travelled so quickly that just a few weeks after the premiere, Gustav Mahler offered to produce the work in Vienna. Sadly, Dvořák’s nitpicking over contractual terms delayed the Viennese opening until after the composer’s death in 1904. Exquisite melodies pour forth in stunning profusion, rising sensually from the orchestra as much as from the singers. Dvořák weaves a set of leitmotifs into a hypnotic web, creating a sense of a tightly knit mythical world obeying a musical destiny. The score contains echoes of the folk idiom of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony and Prague waltzes, accentuated by a recurrent upward appoggiatura at the end of lines. At times, the score recalls the fevered decadence of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame. Some anguished chord progressions, stretched beyond major or minor and incorporating the English horn, show Dvořák’s absorption of Wagner, without the bombast. British conductor Sir Mark Elder captured the diaphanous mystery of Rusalka’s water world and the grandeur of the royal hunt and court. He sustained tension through the quietest moments of the score and let fly the Bohemian dance tunes.

Jamie Barton was the surprise erotic center of the production. Not that the witch Jezibaba is the object of anyone’s amorous attention or is herself on a mission to seduce. When Rusalka begs Jezibaba to give her a human form so that the handsome prince who swims naked in her pool can see and love her, Jezibaba puts a fatal condition on her magic: Rusalka must forego her power of speech in exchange for a flesh-and-blood body. Rusalka readily agrees, naively believing that love will vanquish all obstacles. Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld dressed Jezibaba as a Victorian matron in a high-necked dress made out of cobwebs; the silver sparkles dusting her eyelashes hint, however, at something kinkier. Barton is not svelte. Yet power is the ultimate source of Eros, and Barton’s dominance of the stage (and obvious pleasure in that dominance) was absolute. Barton’s massive mezzo erupts like a foghorn at unexpected moments; at other times it slides sinuously around Dvořák’s curvaceous folk melodies. In the potion scene, “Čury mury fuk” (abracadabra), where Jezibaba concocts the brew that will turn Rusalka from a wave to a corporeal body, Barton punctuates her movements like a dancer, putting meaning into each self-satisfied flick of a finger. Zimmerman has given Jezibaba three helpers in various stages of arrested metamorphosis from human to animal: a mouse, cat, and crow. They weave around Jezibaba in a lascivious surging waltz, while bringing ingredients, including a writhing rodent, to the bubbling concoction. The cat ecstatically stirs his tail in the steaming bucket, eyes rolling like Harpo Marx. At the conclusion of this ingeniously choreographed scene, Barton coquettishly pulls a pair of goggles down over her eyes, her lips curling in sensuous satisfaction. The change from Delora Zajick’s listless performances as Jezibaba in the Schenk Rusalka was enormous.  

But however delicious this scene of lusty malice, it harbored the seeds of Zimmerman’s flawed concept. After the potion is assembled, Rusalka (Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais) is put on a gurney behind a filthy curtain and wheeled offstage, invoking a nightmare gynecological exam. When she reappears in a white under-slip, dazed and stumbling, her long blond locks shorn, blood is running from her mouth. The image conjures up a domestic-abuse victim or, worse, a victim of medical rape. Never mind that Rusalka’s post-potion entrance has been preceded by the gorgeous, shimmering water motif of alternating thirds that is her hallmark theme, or that the prince (American tenor Brandon Jovanovich) is pouring out his heart to her in a thrilling aria of yearning, its keys modulating ever higher in ecstatic desire. She runs from him, spooked and suspicious, her new body barely functioning. Only at the end of the scene, when the prince scoops her up in his arms, does she smile triumphantly at him, as the orchestra breaks out in a celebratory din of brass and percussion recalling Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

To be sure, Dvořák signals throughout the opera that this fairytale is tragic. An ominous glissando of foreboding regularly interrupts scenes of fragile hope. In this first love-struck encounter scene, Rusalka’s fellow nymphs and her father, the Water Gnome, warn offstage of future doom as the orchestra grows increasingly agitated. The Wall Street Journal’s opera critic, Heidi Waleson, rightly invoked the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim to frame the Zimmerman production; Bettelheim’s association between violence and fairytales is now received wisdom. Still, Zimmerman’s image of a bloodied, battered Rusalka originates in modern gender politics, not in Dvořák’s music or Kvapil’s libretto. Early publicity stills for the production showed a terrified Opolais with blood covering her chin; wiser heads ultimately scrapped that ad campaign.

Opalais’s Rusalka was guarded throughout the opera. Even in the famous “Song to the Moon,” with its sweet, pleading melody and soaring octave leap (anticipating “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), Opolais showed little of the child-like innocence and vulnerability that was Renee Fleming’s trademark quality in this role during the Schenk era. Opalais has a pure, ringing soprano with a mature vibrato; she attacked the “Moon” aria’s difficult melody with command. But Rusalka’s otherworldly nature became, in Opalais’s performance, simply a wary defensiveness.

Zimmerman’s final image again ignored the musical mandate. Rusalka has returned to her glen, after the prince betrayed her for a princess who reciprocates lust, unlike the cold-blooded Rusalka. He is still haunted by the water nymph, however, and tracks her down in the forest, now denuded in Zimmerman’s staging. Rusalka gives him a last fatal kiss and utters a benediction on his soul. The orchestra swells into a cathartic crescendo, then fades away in a whispered major chord of calm. Zimmerman’s Rusalka, however, throws a spinning fit, her hands to her head like a high-strung neurotic. She puts the dead prince’s coat over her shoulders and stumbles catatonically offstage. The image recalled many a Peter Sellars production in which modern angst trumps the score. Art in the then-new twentieth century would soon enough forego redemptive closure. But that is not the narrative tradition in which Dvořák and his librettist worked.

Brandon Jovanovich’s prince made up the warmth lacking in Opalais’s steely water nymph. He also looked the very embodiment of a Prince Charming, with long chestnut hair and dashing eighteenth-century coat and vest. Jovanovich’s voice is both sweet and full, and thankfully devoid of any tenorial bleating. The prince’s tender efforts to understand his silent, physically aloof bride were poignant; when he returns to Rusalka’s glen, delirious with fever, Jovanovich produced a luminous palette of vocal color.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens as Rusalka’s father was a dramatic and vocal cipher, however. Dvořák conferred on the Water Gnome an aria in Act II that should be as beloved as the Song to the Moon: “Běda! Běda! . . . Celý svět nedá ti, nedá” (Woe! woe! . . . No one in this world can give you). The Gnome pours out his sorrow at his daughter’s coming betrayal in a heartbreaking lullaby of empathy and consolation. Owens’s stolid rendition barely registered, however, and he looked bored—though Zimmerman stacked the odds against him with the greatest directorial blunder of the night. A regal polonaise in the prince’s palace precedes the Water Gnome’s aria, here staged by choreographer Austin McCormick as a fiery interplay of lust. The polonaise ends before “Běda! Běda!” begins, yet the dancers continued to writhe silently in the background, even though their movements had nothing to do with the music. The juxtaposition was simply a jarring distraction from the Gnome’s grief.

Designer Daniel Ostling created an elegant deep-red palace interior for the second act: in the corner, a massive pile of antlers conjured the violence of the hunt and, by extension, the human world from which Rusalka would soon flee. His barren Act I forest set was less successful—the spindly trees painted on stage flats looked more Floridian than Central European—and its deconstruction in Act III to show the Met’s backstage infrastructure has become a theatrical cliché. Mara Blumenfeld’s sumptuous Baroque garb for the court was sexy and historically persuasive; the Water Gnome, however, appeared a Frog Prince in naugahyde, contrasting with Schenk’s splendidly Rococo Gnome, rising from the deep like a Tiepolo Neptune. Traditional productions from the 1970s onward favored lots of billowing chiffon for the chorus of nymphs; Blumenfeld’s dryads, in hoop skirts and headdresses of branches, flowers, and feathers, instead had the cheerful solidity of a Ziegfeld chorus line. T.J. Gerckens’s eerie lighting in Jezibaba’s laboratory accentuated the surreal pleasure of the scene. Daniela Mack as the Kitchen Boy, one of two rustics who act as a Shakespearean foil for the supernatural elements, stood out for her energy and robust tone. Jezibaba’s three mutant helpers deserved credit in the program; the mouse in particular moved with slinky suavity.

Despite the production’s missteps, Met audiences dodged a bullet. The directorial abominations that have been urged on the Met make the Zimmerman misfirings tolerable. So how did the New York press respond? Predictably—and dangerously. If a critic liked the production, it was for the wrong reasons. If he panned it, it was also for the wrong reasons. The New York Times’s senior classical music critic, the estimable Anthony Tommasini, enthused over Zimmerman’s “dark vision of the patriarchal oppression at the root of the fairy tale.” Tommasini’s evidence for this “patriarchal oppression” was the fact that the Prince wrapped Rusalka in his cloak at the end of their first encounter and then lifted her in his arms. In Tommasini’s eyes, Rusalka is being forced to “submit” to the Prince’s “strictures.” If this innocent act of chivalry constitutes oppression, then romance is truly dead. Nevertheless, the message has been sent: “shockingly dark,” as Tommasini termed Zimmerman’s reading, equals “good!”

Tommasini’s reflexive invocation of “patriarchy” is particularly inapt here. Rusalka eludes all human bonds, negative or positive. It is she who kills the Prince with her kiss, becoming more like the archetypal mermaid who lures men to their watery graves. This is not patriarchy; it is siren-archy.

The New York Observer’s James Jorden, by contrast, was withering. He again invoked the sick Kusej staging of paternal rape as the litmus test, against which Zimmerman failed miserably. (Opolais sang the lead in that production as well.) Zimmerman had “no grasp” of the “darker elements” that inspired the Kusej sex-abuse concept, Jorden griped. He mocked Jezibaba’s “cutesy half-animal creatures.” And he saw cheap “sentimentality” in the final scene, which he misremembers. Message to the Met: anything short of the utter desecration of innocence and beauty will be scorned as timid and retrograde. Get with the program!

It would be unrealistic to hope that Peter Gelb, or any other arts administrator or board, would be wholly unmoved by such critical pressures. The press drumbeat for adolescent revisionism cannot help but have some effect on managerial decision-making. So far, to Gelb’s credit, the Met remains far less infected by Regietheater than any other major Western opera house. But the most radical thing that Gelb could do would be to honor consistently the lost conventions of the artistic past. We pay down our debt to geniuses like Dvořák by seeking to realize their intentions as faithfully as possible. Doing so also creates real “difference” and “diversity,” by expanding our experience of what it is to be human.

(Postscript: Moravian director Peter Weigl’s 1977 movie version of Rusalka would give critics like Jorden and Wolfe a heart attack. The 1970’s glamour aesthetic is amusing, but the film offers a powerfully dynamic reading of the score, under the baton of Libor Pesek; the nymph choruses have the fierce quality of Bacchantes, thanks to an uninhibited use of the triangle. The Czechoslovakian singers, led by Gabriela Beňačková and Peter Dvorský, are excellent, and it is a pleasure to hear the language idiomatically pronounced. The majestic palace scenes were shot at the Schloss Nymphenburg and the Herrenchiemsee in Bavaria. Sadly, about 30 minutes of music have been cut—most devastatingly, Rusalka’s aria that opens Act III, “Necitelná vodní moci” (Unfeeling watery power), which contains some unbearably bittersweet instrumental writing, best heard in the Charles MacKerras-Fleming CD. The film is lip-synched and there are no subtitles, but the libretto can be found online.)

Kristine Opolais in the title role of Dvořák's Rusalka. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

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