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Fleming shimmers as Dvorak's RUSALKA in Met-Opera in HD

Not every fairy tale ends happily. Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka, the lyric-opera-tale about a tragic water nymph, certainly does not qualify for the "and they lived happily ever after" variety. The opera is one of Renee Fleming's signature roles and is Dvorak's most popular opera. 

Though constantly performed in his native Czech lands, Rusalka is the only of his eleven operas that has a place in some international opera venues. Alas, even in those, it is not performed very often. It made its Live-at-the-Met-at-the-Movies debut globally -- and thus luckily also for us in Westchester -- on Saturday, Feb. 8th.

It was worth the wait -- if only to experience a throwback to more naturalistic, non-oversimplyfied, or over-the-top ridiculously time-changed productions we are often now given, in hopes of attracting younger audiences. 

The Met here, revived its original 1993 production with the gossamer sets by Guenter Schneider-Siemssen.  It may have taken the Met ninety-two years to produce Rusalka, after its Prague premiere in1901, but it did itself proud with this thoughtful Otto Schenk production. (Interesting is, that the very talented American mezzo-soprano, Dolora Zajick, who is the current witch Jezibaba, also sang the role in that original production. A global favorite, she has sung over 225 times at the Met.)

But the opera most assuredly belongs to Renee Fleming, who sang the lead here in 1977, in 2004, in 2009, and headlines the current run. Probably the most beloved Diva of our recent period, the extremely versatile American soprano frequently hosts the HD transmissions, and undoubtedly won over a new set of admirers when she performed the National Anthem at last week's NFL Superbowl. 

Rusalka had an interesting birth, with the poet Joroslav Kvapil (1868-1950,) looking for a composer in 1900 to tackle his already completed libretto, and the prolific Antonin Dvorak searching for another operatic project to undertake.
 
Dvorak (1841-1904) is the composer we all associate with his ninth symphony "From the New World." This stems from the time he spent in the United States, from 1892 to 1895, as Head of Composition at NY's National Music Conservatory, now long defunct. 

Born into a middle class Bohemian family, with parents who encouraged his musical ambitions, the boy Dvorak was sent to Prague to study at its famed "Organ School." After graduating at 18, he was immediately employed as a professional musician and started to compose a huge output of symphonic works, which often incorporate folk material from his native land. 

A product of late Romanticism, he was strongly influenced by Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Wagner. He was fairly mature when he turned to composing his 11 operas.

Rusalka, the ninth of them, premiered in Prague on 3/3/1901. Dvorak had completed it in just seven months.

Prized for his orchestral works, the composer obviously was disturbed that the world failed to recognize him as a serious composer of opera. He is quoted as complaining: "In the last five years I have written nothing but operas...I am viewed as a composer of symphonies and yet I proved long years ago that my main bias is towards dramatic creation."

Who knows, maybe one day we will be exposed to other examples of his operatic output. The rich, luscious sounds, with the clever use of repeated lyrical themes offered here, makes that prospect most desirable.

Rusalka, a lyric fairy tale in three acts, tells us about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince -- and your instincts should tell you immediately that that is not going to work out! The tale is based on a variety of sources, including Slavic mythology, "Undine" by Fouque, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," with most of the credit going to stories by Karel Jaromir Erben.

It exposes the dichotomy of the purity of nature and the corruption of human society. The nymph against the wishes of her protective Gnome father, has the witch, Jezibaba, turn her into a mortal being. The witch warns her of many problems, including that she will be mute to other human beings. Rusalka is convinced that her love for the prince, which he returns, will overcome any dangerous spells they will encounter at his court. 

The prince however deserts her for a scheming foreign princess. Crestfallen, Rusalka, returns to the lake and learns that when the remorseful lover comes back to her, he will die after their first kiss. The prince accepts his fate and dies in her arms. Rusalka disappears into the water.

Possibly some of you read the more than tepid review THE NY TIMES gave the revival of this especially lovely production, and Fleming's interpretation. Well I, and I speak for everyone in the audience I queried, totally disagree.
 
Far from being musty and dated, the ingenious sets and Sylvia Strathammer's diaphanous costuming, transport us easily into the vaporous tale they tell. And Fleming was at the top of her form. Yes, her magnificent, creamy instrument may have darkened a bit, but there are few voices that are so consistent in their beauty. And the Diva's physical loveliness makes it totally believable that this prince falls for her, no matter how strange her behavior.

Fleming's delivery of the aria "Song to the Moon," the only touch of the opera that even the most sophisticated member of the audience really knows, was  stunning. And so was the rest of her mellifluous and dramatic performance. Brava! 

Accolades are also to be given to the Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, as the Prince. You may remember him as the truly fickle, non-remorseful Duke, in the recent HD performance of Rigoletto

It was as though every single singer here was truly handpicked for his or her particular minor or leading role. That is one of the Met's most remarkable achievements, when we all know that casting, most of the time, is decided  four or five years in advance. Voices surely can have transformations during such an interval.  

Further, I found it striking, that this Rusalka was performed in the original Czech, but with the exception of the Prince, all the other principals, some with  foreign-sounding names, are either home-grown or Canadian.
 
The clever, above-mentioned mezzo-soprano, Dolora Zajik, comes from Oregon. The very able bass-baritone, John Relyea, who performed the sorrowful Gnome Father, hails from Toronto.  Emily Magee, the enigmatic Foreign Princess, is from NY, NY, but has a long history of performing in important European houses.
  
Everyone was to be applauded. But attention should be paid to one minor, yet especially outstanding performance -- that of Julie Boulianne, as the Kitchen Boy. We will undoubted hear more from this delightfully fresh soprano voice, in the body of a gifted actress.

A charming touch was the use of children as frogs and other water-related critters in one of the lighter moments of this enchanted, but tragic fairy tale.

The orchestra was under the thoughtful and enthusiastic guidance of Yannick Nezet-Sequin, who comes from Montreal. As usual we can be very proud of the world-class sound he gleaned from it.

The host for this performance was Susan Graham, who delighted me especially, when she exclaimed "opera-shmokera" and other entertaining bon mots, while hugging her great friend Renee. They have performed myriad times together. You might recall the absolutely delicious HD Rosenkavalier they partnered a while back.

Now, if there are those who believe in numbers, for this thoroughly enjoyable experience with Dvorak, the number nine maybe be at work. Rusalka is his ninth opera; you recall his most famous symphony is his ninth; and he was the father of nine children. A well-informed numerologist tells me this means he was a generous man who offered more of himself to the world...more than he received in return.

Rusalka encores at 6:30 PM, on Wednesday, Feb. 12th, at the WP City Center or Regal NewRoc.

Here are some comments from some of your neighbors:

Beverly Feder and her husband, Leslie, of Yorktown (along with most of the HD audience) had never seen Rusalka before. "I had never even heard of it", Mrs. Feder told me. But an experienced opera lover, and involved enough with music that she plays both piano and violin, Mrs. Feder explained her gratitude for the HD-at-the-movies offerings: "I think it is one of the smartest things the Met ever did. Going to the actual house has become very difficult, aside from the expense. And I think the HD's bring opera to people who have never seen an opera before."

Millicent Schacher of Wesley Hills in Rockland County, comes with three friends from her community. That is because WP City Center, is easier to reach than the few venues on their side of the Hudson. A veteran Met attendant, she switched to the HD's as soon as she heard of their existence. "I truly appreciate them," she explained. "Rusalka, was a pleasant surprise. I thought  the sets were gorgeous, and felt that every single performer's singing and acting was just wonderful."

Jmel Wilson of Scarsdale, a trained singer, explained to me the significance of the "forward" placing of the Chzech language, that makes the singers so willing to sing in Chzech. "It literally means the sound comes from the front, as it does in Italian, for instance. It avoids the the guttural consonants that emanate from the rear of the throat." She thought very highly of Rusalka, especially enjoying the "extremely moving beauty of the last act."

Wendy McFee of Scarsdale, hails from England where she attended opera at Covent Garden, for instance. This was her first HD experience, and she was "most pleasantly surprised that the subtitles don't interfere with what the cameras display". She found this production "captivating" and was especially struck by "the conductor's obvious passion for this piece." She called this opera experience "sheer enjoyment and felt the four hours passed extremely quickly."

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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