Lyric’s dark and unfocused “Rusalka” fails to touch the heart

Mon Feb 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ana Maria Martinez and Brandon Jovanovich in the Lyric Opera production of Dvorak's "Rusalka." Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Ana Maria Martinez and Brandon Jovanovich in the Lyric Opera production of Dvořák’s “Rusalka.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The saw that one shouldn’t judge a performance by its opening minutes was sorely tried with the start of Lyric Opera’s Rusalka Saturday night.

The opening Prelude was accompanied by an intrusive pantomime of the opera’s less-than-heroic prince drunkenly swigging from a bottle, flirting with a woman and falling off a chair. The opera itself began with the chorus of slatternly water nymphs in goth makeup and tattered ballet dresses, bumping and grinding like a lineup of frizzy-haired bimbos that dropped in from an Arkansas community revival of Les Miz. With these crass visuals, one steeled oneself for a painful Eurotrash staging of Dvorak’s sweet romantic fable of the title water nymph who sacrifices all for love.

Mercifully, the campy opening was not indicative of what followed and the Lyric Opera’s new David McVicar-John Macfarlane production proved largely traditional with some wry postmodern touches.

Yet despite some terrific singing from the supporting cast and an atmospheric scenic design, Lyric Opera’s belated premiere of Antonin Dvořák’s adult fairy tale failed to reach the heights and, most crucially, touch the heart—partly due to the uneven staging and partly due to a singer in the lead role that failed to deliver the goods vocally and dramatically.

Dvořák’s 1900 opera tells of the lonely water nymph Rusalka who longs for the love of the human Prince. Her father, Vodnik, the Water Goblin, is dubious but advises Rusalka to seek out the counsel of the witch Jezibaba. The witch has a potion that will transform Rusalka into human form but she will lose her power to speak. Further, if she fails to win the prince’s love they both will be cursed for all eternity.

Rusalka agrees, and swallows the potion. The Prince does fall in love with her and takes Rusalka back to his palace where the strange mute woman arouses suspicion from servants and guests. The fickle Prince is soon attracted to a Foreign Princess, and callously rejects Rusalka who runs back to her lake. Ultimately the repentant Prince follows and insists that she kiss him even if it means his death, which he willingly accepts. The Prince dies and Rusalka remians cursed for eternity.

While Dvořák’s legacy today rests largely on his orchestral and chamber music, the Czech composer was a prolific opera composer, though, except for Rusalka, none of his stage works have gained a footing outside of his homeland. Rusalka’s raptly beautiful “Song to the Moon” in Act 1 is a recital standard, yet the entire opera is replete with melodic riches, and crafted with Dvořák’s characteristic flair and feeling for Bohemian folksong.

Gratitude that Lyric Opera has finally brought Dvořák’s opera to Chicago audiences is mingled with disappointment that this new production wasn’t more successful.

McVicar and Macfarlane, who gave Lyric its well-received 2012 production of Strauss’s Elektra, are on less secure footing here. While largely faithful to Jaroslav Krapil’s libretto, there is a half-hearted attempt to make some contemporary environmental hay out of Dvořák’s simple fairy-tale. Macfarlane’s sets are striking for the framing forest scenes with long bare trees, though the towering foundation stones on either side of the proscenium suggest some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial ruin. The lighter servant scene in Act 2 is set in a high, narrow palace kitchen with a Brueghel-like tableau of a fiery oven and huge slaughtered cow hanging from the rafters. The set  for the Prince’s palace grand room is stunning, golden and sterile with multitudinous elk heads on the walls. Macfarlane’s atmospheric scenic designs work well with their subtle indications of the despoilment of nature set against this inter-species romance.

Yet McVicar’s contributions proved distinctly more variable. While the director handled the most difficult dramatic scenes skillfully, including the challenging final moments of the opera, he also injects a layer of cynical postmodern irony that clangs dissonantly with the essential innocence of the opera and its characters. There are several campy bits that come off as patronizing to the opera and to Dvořák, as if McVicar and colleagues are saying, “We’re much too sophisticated to take this Bohemian schmaltz seriously and you should be too.”

Rather than the usual rubbery costume , the Water Goblin is here a bewildering homeless figure, costumed in a dirty and bedraggled long-tailed tuxedo, looking less like an aquatic creature than an assistant conductor down on his luck. The witch jams a stuffed cat into her pot while making her concoction, which she feeds to Rusalka through a funnel (a bit stolen from the revisionist Freudian Hansel and Gretel of Richard Jones and MacFarlane). Jezibaba’s henchmen are costumed as large black crows who cavort about and later steal a baby carriage as fresh ingredients for her spells. With the witch given center stage as comic harridan the gentle romantic plight of Rusalka is firmly shoved to the sidelines.

Somewhere on Earth there may be a more untalented choreographer than Andrew George but I doubt it. The show never fully recovered from his twerking water nymphs at the top of the evening, and George’s anachronistic would-be clever ballet in Act 2 set the audience sniggering. (George was also responsible for the apprentices’ silly hoochi-coo moves in the Lyric’s Meistersinger.)

All this wouldn’t matter if Lyric had a stronger artist able to command the stage in the role of the tragic water nymph. Ana Maria Martinez is a capable singer yet both vocally and dramatically she was simply unable to bring off this assignment with the degree of vocal gleam and dramatic depth Rusalka demands.

Martinez’s soprano has never been a first-class voice and now it has become even plainer and harder in tone, losing whatever luster it once possessed. Her “Song to the Moon” was jarringly blank and literal rendered with unvaried vibrato and a lack of essential melancholy longing. Worse. she took a dive on the climactic final note completely and that wasn’t the only high note Martinez didn’t even attempt Saturday night. Why wait this long to present Rusalka only to do it with a singer who doesn’t have the notes?

Elsewhere the soprano sang sensitively if blandly with the lack of expressive nuance or dynamic shading keeping her Rusalka earthbound and never breaking the heart the way this role should. Dramatically, Martinez seemed to be working hard to make up for her vocal shortcomings, yet ultimately her water-nymph lacked the requisite sad vulnerability, her twitchy, hyperactive performance  ultimately more autistic than artistic.

The rest of the principals were vocally faultless, with the most consistent singing coming from Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince. Jovanovich, whose artistry seems to soar higher with each Chicago appearance, brought a heroic tenor and lyric warmth that made the weak and vacillating character seem more rounded and less odious than usual. The American tenor’s voice has grown in heft and stamina without losing its warmth and flexibility. Jovanovich has moved successfully into Wagner roles in recent seasons and, he deserves to get the nod as Lyric’s Siegfried in its upcoming Ring cycle.

Even with being costumed like a dissipated sterno addict, Eric Owens’ deep and warm bass-baritone was a pleasure throughout the evening as Vodnik, with Owens singing with especially tender sensitivity in Act 2.

Jill Grove is cornering the sorceress market at Lyric, having sung the witch in the company’s Hansel and Gretel in 2012 as well as Jezibaba in Rusalka. Grove brought her big mezzo and evil theatrical relish to the role, though the staging’s broadly comic treatment of the character upstaged the delicate heroine.

As the Foreign Princess who catches the Prince’s wandering eye, Ekaterina Gubanova was aptly malign and imperious. The Russian mezzo-soprano made a notable local debut, singing with big gleaming tone and richness that made her duets with Jovanovich thrilling.

Dvořák’s intentional comic relief is provided by two palace servants who also fill in the exposition. Philip Horst displayed a booming bass-baritone well suited to the pompous and blustery Gamekeeper. In the trousers role of the fearful Kitchen Boy, Daniela Mack made a terrific Lyric debut singing with a clear bright soprano and making the character’s wide-eyed trepidation amusing. Lauren Snouffer sang well in her Act 3 solo as the First Wood Nymph.

After some horn bobbles during the opening Prelude, the Lyric Opera Orchestra settled down and presented a glowing and resplendent performance of Dvorak’s glorious score under Sir Andrew Davis’s alert and sensitive direction.

Rusalka runs through March 16.; 312-332-2244.

Posted in Performances

15 Responses to “Lyric’s dark and unfocused “Rusalka” fails to touch the heart”

  1. Posted Feb 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm by Anne-Marie

    I am frankly shocked by the harsh review of this production. I was there for the opening night and personally found the staging beautiful (not Euro trashy at all like the Macbeth of years gone by)and the singing of the principals, Ana Maria Martinez included, lyrically satisfying and moving. The orchestra played splendidly under the leadership of Sir Andrew. Having seen the Met production with the great Renée Fleming in the title role, I thought that the Lyric did a magnificent job with this premiere in more ways than one. Of course I am only a humble lay person who loves opera and has had ample exposure in various opera houses for over 30 years. This negative review struck me as rather odd given that other serious critics in Chicago’s major newspapers gave “highly recommended” ratings. I suppose Mr. Johnson’s standards are just above everyone else’s.

  2. Posted Feb 25, 2014 at 9:29 am by Rose

    “More autistic than artistic?” Are you kidding me? Ana María Martínez was flowy, mermaid-y perfection in this role… I’m not sure which opera you watched, Mr. Johnson, but it surely couldn’t have been the spellbinding production I saw.

  3. Posted Feb 25, 2014 at 11:58 am by The Gort

    If you let this review dissuade you from seeing this magnificent production, it will be a tragedy. The music is ravishingly gorgeous–probably Dvorak’s best orchestral score.

  4. Posted Feb 26, 2014 at 1:19 pm by Opera Lover

    I am shocked by this review! In the 12 years I’ve been going to Lyric this is one of the best shows I’ve seen. It is both musically and dramatically thrilling and the singing, especially by Ms. Martinez, is outstanding. I find your comment about her being “autistic” offensive, to say the least. Mr. Johnson, you usually get it so right, how can you get this one so wrong???

  5. Posted Feb 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm by mbh

    While on the surface this seems like a rather harsh review, I don’t totally disagree with Mr. Johnson’s sentiments. it was a ‘very good’ performance of a beautiful and well-crafted, though by no means, Olympian, work of operatic art. The much anticipated ‘Song to the Moon’ was subdued, though I believe Martinez, Davis and the stage director opted for subtlety and stream of consciousness more than vocal fireworks leading to a rousing curtain. This is, after all, a music drama, and not a song recital.

    There is much to love about this work and the production, but it did leave me cold in places, while the last act seemed to drag on eternally. Unlike the magnificent Parsifal of earlier this season which was both emotional and visceral and made 5 hours seem like 2, Rusalka did seem long, and I could feel audience members blow a sigh of relief at the final measures.

    Martinez is a great actress in this role, but she does lack power and resolution in places. Too bad we didn’t get Renee Fleming to perform the role. I failed to see the autism or eurotrash elements of which Mr. Johnson speaks, but I do agree that overall, something is lacking to make Lyric’s Rusalka a truly great production.

  6. Posted Mar 03, 2014 at 12:03 pm by Ron Bauer

    Having been there opening night, talked to my opera loving friends and read other reviews, I am quite certain that Mr. Johnson’s views are very much a minority opinion. I’m not sure what performance he was watching either, but he is of course entitled to his opinion.

  7. Posted Mar 05, 2014 at 7:01 pm by Chris

    We saw this opera last night. It was phenomenal!

    And it most certainly touched the heart. I wasn’t there on opening night, but I can’t imagine that it would be that different. And let’s set the record straight. The opening was with wood nymphs, different from the water nymphs! Wood nymphs are playful, childlike, dorky creatures–they were perfect. And Martinez sang beautifully, hauntingly. And her water nymph actions were graceful and flowing just as would be expected. Anyone wishing to see this, most certainly should if it’s still available. It was wonderful!

  8. Posted Mar 06, 2014 at 9:22 am by dr michaels

    I thought the staging intruiging. Having seen the Met production of Rusalka, i was curious to compare. I found our heroine/tragic figure quite devoid of passion and longing. Her role was overplayed in an oddly twitchy manner. While her voice might well have been technically correct, she was not inspiring to me nor did I see her as a a tragic victim. Instead, it played out more like a fickle child who was whining about the consequences of her decisions. Other operatic voices were just excellent, our tragic hero superb and passionate and powerful, of course. ….I loved this review!.. of course people should see it and decide for themselves…

  9. Posted Mar 07, 2014 at 11:07 pm by Antonin

    I’m a big fan of most of McVicar’s productions, but as the reviewer correctly assesses, this one is mostly a mess. And Martinez’s “acting” to demonstrate her muteness was all too reminiscent of a cat trying to cough up a fur ball. Renee Fleming, who was glorious in the role at the Met, must’ve been laughing in her sleeve.

  10. Posted Mar 12, 2014 at 5:23 pm by Ken T

    Caught this production on March 10th. Is the reviewer accusing Ms. Martinez of simplifying the music? Although I do not know the score well it seemed to me that she sang B-flats, Bs and perhaps a C or two in abundance, all with secure, lustrous tone. If you’re going to call out a singer for dodging difficulties you need to be specific, not vaguely snarky. Better still, if you want high notes, go see Lucia. It seemed to me that the entire cast did a fabulous job, singing with power and beauty over an orchestration of Wagnerian opulence. I am grateful to LOC for bringing this lovely work to a wider audience, whatever the incidental flaws in its realization.

  11. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 11:41 pm by anne

    Sorry, I just attended Sunday’s performance and was overwhelmed with the beauty of the singing and the production. The Met’s HD paled in comparison. Ms. martinez was lovely and rapturous and Mr. Jovanovich was an amazing Prince. Lyric Opera should be proud of such a great production.

  12. Posted Mar 19, 2014 at 6:59 pm by Frank

    Mr. Johnson, you are completely correct with your review of this production. I agreed with all of it. I was unmoved by the singing in general and was so disappointed that most of it was staged with singers lying on the floor singing upstage. All right, we get it– you’re water nymphs but you do have legs. . I anticipated so much from Martinez’s performance. She needs to dig deep and build the performance from her final moment at the end when there is nothing left to sing and she is walking upstage into the forest. She had a real moment that it was all over and it was beautiful. The staging overall and intelligence overall is much too literal. The Act 2 sets were astoundingly great.

  13. Posted Mar 20, 2014 at 2:01 am by Barbara Vesper

    I, too, saw the Sunday Matinee performance, having seen the Met production in HD just three weeks before. The Met production left me cold. I didn’t like the green slime, the acting, the sets, even Renee Fleming’s “acting.” But I loved the Lyric production, with the exception of the ballet segments and the nymph’s dancing about. Possibly, I was at an advantage not being close to the stage. I couldn’t see the details. I was engrossed throughout the opera, so it seemed to me that Mr. Johnson and I saw different operas. Wonder if he saw the Met production.

  14. Posted Apr 04, 2014 at 8:24 pm by G.R. Downtown

    I found this review to be very astute and well written. I was not able to attend the production, but did listen to the opening night broadcast.

    I listened back to the tape and did find the Rusalka’s final high note to be slightly shortchanged. She didn’t exactly take a dive on the final note. She hit it but the pianissimo was quite short and then I found she went slightly sharp when she increased the volume.

    The Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury recently sang the role in San Antonio and in Raleigh. I can’t speak about the San Antonio performances, but in the North Carolina one she hit the final high note with a pianissimo that rang as a combination of Caballe and Gencer. She is singing the role later this season in Amsterdam and I hope that performance will be broadcast online. But none of these singers including Miss Fleming have the required spinto voice to inhabit the role completely especially in the mostly mute second act.

    Despite these limitations, it is good to hear the opera performed. It deserves to be part of the standard rep and it is a shame that no other companies have chosen to partner with Lyric on this production.

  15. Posted Apr 09, 2014 at 12:20 am by John Hedley

    I just finished listening to the Decca 4605682 with Fleming and I must confess that she does pull off a better sound- I have not seen the current Met staging. However I think your review fails in key areas to consider the production as a whole or give proper credit as an entirely novel interpretation. The ‘autistic’ characterization used to describe Martinez’s palace incarnation is spot on but it’s faithful to the overall realism of the director’s interpretation: she’s bewildered and, like autistics, she personifies sensory overload that comes from being a fish out of water.
    I agree that the environmental theme is an overreach I don’t think it necessarily bleeds as deeply into the set as you think- it’s a bleak story and nature isn’t really much better than the world of man.

    Finally I would say this: Lyric’s preoccupation with modernized contemporary staging elements have a history of falling flat on their face (at least the ones I’ve seen), but when they do click it’s a home run (the Ring Cycle- another preordained downer- comes to mind). Yes the voices could have had more oomph, but considering demands the staging put on the leads- the moon through the trees with Rusalka reclining was arresting in a way that- if you’re there to have all five senses entertained- satisfies. To sum it up: I think you’re (gulp) failing to see the forest for the trees.

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