Composer: Antonin Dvorak
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Producer: Otto Schenk
Rusalka: Renée Fleming
The Prince: Piotr Beczala
Jezibaba: Mary Phillips
Water Gnome: John Relyea
The Foreign Princess: Emily Magee
Getting to hear still reigning opera diva Renée Fleming sing live is a priceless gift, and New Yorkers have been fortunate enough to have quite a few opportunities to do just that lately, either when she added an unmistakable touch of classiness to the testosterone fest that is the Super Bowl last Sunday or during a performance of her signature role in Rusalka at The Met. The opera's story was partly inspired by Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid, which was also the basis for the hugely popular Disney movie by the same name. Rusalka, however, is more long-winded, to say the least, and does not have the happy ending of its Hollywood counterpart.
But Dvorak's name on the score guarantees splashy lyricism galore, tenor Piotr Beczala on the stage some shameless swooning, Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium a dynamic pace, and the orchestra in the pit a brilliantly executed musical accompaniment. So yesterday my friends Steve, Carter and I coincidentally converged at The Met - Apparently great minds do think alike - on an unusually mildish and dry evening, a much welcome respite among too many messy and disruptive winter storms.
As soon as I sat down and noticed the dreaded insert in the program, my heart sank. It eventually came back up, but still seething for a little while from no longer having Dolora Zajick as the sorceress Jezibaba. But the main artists were there, I surprisingly had a lot of empty seats around me, which meant that I could sprawl
a bit and had fewer chances of being disturbed by coughing, talking, program dropping, candy unwrapping, etc., so life was not all bad.
From her first appearance perched on a tree to her ultimate good-bye fading into the background, Renée Fleming magisterially proved again that she still owes the part. Blessed with ageless beauty and voice, adorned with cascading blond tresses and flowing long dresses, she remains one of the loveliest water nymphs ever. Her delicately lyrical "Song to the Moon" will be remembered as one of those bucket-list moments opera lovers live for, and my only regret is that her being located towards the back of the stage prevented us from enjoying her mesmerizing singing to the fullest. She was heard much more clearly as she got closer to the audience, and there's no doubt that her intrinsically plush, beautifully phrased singing added a vibrant zest of life to her fundamentally ethereal mermaid.
Her handsome, ardent and fickle Prince was Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor that has pretty much become a household name at The Met, and for all the right reasons. His voice was bright and passionate, his acting assured and convincing. Both singers oozed enough charisma to make up for their not always particularly engaging characters, their singing reliably producing captivating sounds while conveying strong emotions. Their duet in Act III, in particular, was a little wonder of inspired musicality, even at the end of a long evening.
It is always a disappointment not to be able to hear a singer that one eagerly expected, but Mary Phillips did a most laudable job stepping in Dolora Zajick's hard-to-fill shoes and gamely became the fairy tale's mandatory grumbling witch. Bass-baritone John Relyea was an appropriately authoritative Water Gnome, powerfully dispensing his wisdom but unable to save his daughter. Soprano Emily Magee was both fierce and coldly calculating as the trouble-making Foreign Princess in her remarkable Met debut.
The sets, for all their lavish splendor, were resolutely conventional. Acts I and III essentially consisted of a bucolic scenery featuring a mysterious lake in the moonlight, occasionally animated by a colony of colorful, (too?) cute insects happily frolicking all over the place. At least one audience member in front of me actually found it eye-popping enough to record it for a few minutes on his iPhone. Act II was taking place in the outside of the Prince's opulent castle, which was dominated by an imposing set of stairs and - Surprise! - a pond.
The costumes followed the same pattern of predictability and Rusalka's eerily pale clothes stood in stark contrast to the mortals' earthily-colored, form-fitting outfits. From a visual point of view, it was all very organic, unquestionably easy on the eyes, but rather unimaginative too. As for the flashes of lightning that struck at every crucial moment - presumably to let us know that we were witnessing a crucial moment -, they were more preposterous than anything else.
Fortunately, plenty of reasons for excitement were coming from the orchestra pit where Yannick Nézet-Séguin turned Dvorak's richly evocative, if a bit over-extended, score into an excellent musical adventure. Hints of the bohemian Slavonic Dances were on vibrant display during the three wood sprites' opening dance, Acts I and III contained subtly poetic overtones evoking the magical atmosphere of the natural setting, and the fierce confrontations of Act II were forcefully rendered by intense outbursts. Rarely has the harp's gleaming sound been used as potently as in the "Song to the Moon" and other chosen spots, cleverly emphasizing Rusalka's quintessential otherworldliness.
This was yet another professional triumph for maestro Nézet-Séguin who, beside his prodigious musical skills, also has a much appreciated talent for finishing the performances he conducts right on time. And sure enough, by 11:15 PM the last notes were dreamily fading away, and we were all soon back on a still dry Lincoln Plaza, rushing home after a mostly enchanted evening and before the already looming next winter storm.