Once upon a time...
...the phenomenal Czech composer Antonín Dvorák wrote the ninth of his ten operas, a lyric fairy tale called Rusalka (1901), and created a masterpiece. Houston Grand Opera has imported this production from Glyndebourne Festival, where it was mounted for soprano Ana María Martínez in 2009. The wait has been worth it, for this is a master class in how to stage an opera with taste, class, intelligence and emotional wallop.
Sung to perfection, top to bottom, Dvorák's glorious work gives Martínez, the international soprano who's an audience favorite at HGO, the role of a lifetime. Nothing disappoints in this commanding production, and I'll dispense with the superlatives right at the beginning: stunning, marvelous, tremendous, inspired, superior, achingly beautiful, everything just right and so. Feel free to interchange these adjectives, or any others that bespeak quality and the highest standards, throughout the following, for only the best will do.
Czech fairy tales are a breed apart, perhaps not as gruesome as the Germanic Grimms, nor as happily-ever-after as those defining Disney versions from our youth. An ineffable sadness swirls through them; they have a dark soul. If dreams come true, the results are tinged with irony and compromise. Life isn't always fair; usually it's pretty foul. Librettist Jaroslav Kvapil's original story about water sprite Rusalka, who longs to be human, uses leitmotifs from Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, Bohemian folklorists Erben and Nemcová, and characteristics from the legends of Ondine that predate Ovid. The basic elements are all there, but diffused and augmented by Bohemian melancholy. The one caveat from Kvapil: The worlds of man and the supernatural can never mix. Separate but equal. Combine them, and disaster will surely befall.
From her woodlake pool, mermaid Rusalka has seen a man (tenor Brian Jagde, making a most impressive HGO debut.) When he swims in the water, she can only embrace him as a wave. But she longs to touch him, to be one with him, to become human and have a soul. She is warned by her water sprite father Vodnik (the powerful baritone Richard Paul Fink) not to ask for such a thing, for she will lose all, but she is adamant and will not be dissuaded. She calls forth the wily old witch Jezibaba (mezzo Jill Grove, skillfully playing earthy and otherwordly), who also warns her of the damnation to come if the man betrays her, but for innocent Rusalka love carries powerful allure. Sacrificing her voice and her tail, she drinks the vile potion Jezibaba has brewed and meets her handsome prince by the lake in the forest.
He is smitten at once by this strange beauty who cannot speak. Is she real, he muses, or a fairy tale? The world of love is new to Rusalka. Neither fully sprite nor fully human, she can't understand nor give human passion or warmth. But the prince is only a man, and after a week, on their wedding eve, he is seduced by another, the Foreign Princess (soprano Maida Hundeling, dressed to the nines in satin gown like Grace Kelly and singing most elegantly). Cursed by Jezibaba's prophecy, the mermaid flees to her lake home. Haunted by her, the prince follows. To lift the curse and become one with her underwater sisters again, Jezibaba insinuates, she must kill her lover. Rusalka refuses. He must have happiness, she cries, even if she can't. The prince doesn't care about damnation; I must kiss you, he implores. Doing so, he dies in her cold arms, while she's transformed into a firefly's glow. The entire forest glistens in regret.
At the height of his musical powers, Dvorák imbues the work with haunting impressionistic radiance. There are tinges of Wagner – how can one write about mermaids and not be swayed by the father of Rheingold with its bevy of underwater seductresses? – but the Czech master overlays his unnatural world with an almost conversational naturalness. Folk tunes abound, but there's never been more glorious nature painting. The moon is conjured by diaphanous harp and woodwinds, especially so in Rusalka's rhapsodic “Song to the Moon,” the opera's most famous aria. Bathed in cool light filtered through the trees, the rueful mermaid aches for her prince to come, lured by the beauty of the moonlight. Her tail swishes back and forth, assisted by dancers in black who maneuver her as if swimming. The wood sprites, coy and preening, bounce up and down to a jaunty Bohemian melody, cupping their breasts as they hop in girlish glee in pleated skirts and sweater sets. There is the grandest of grand polonaises for the palace ball, and ardent horns for the manly storybook prince. Paternal water sprite Vodnik is limned with dark bass, while Jezibaba's music swirls in devilish dance rhythms. In babushka and full peasant dress, this sneaky old witch is the ultimate yenta, comic, knowing and frightening. The final duet, as the Prince begs Rusalka for her kiss of death, is almost hymn-like in its purity and emotional intensity.
Martinez is as hauntingly radiant as is Dvorák's music for her. A consummate actor, she beguiles in her mute second act scenes, trembling with fright and anticipation, slowly gaining her balance on shaky new legs. Ah, but she has a voice — what a voice! — and it caresses these Slavic melodies that can break one's heart. Martinez is at the top of her game, and that's the best in the world anywhere. But we know how good she can be; it's young Jagde, as the Prince, who's the revelation. Broad of shoulder and oozing stage presence, he's a graduate of San Francisco Opera's acclaimed Merola program and is making a solid run through the international opera world in leading tenor roles in Butterfly, Carmen, Tosca, Ariadne and Bohème. His ringing tenor fills the enormous Brown Theater with effortless rich, full, masculine tone. He has something of the legendary Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers about him, and we hope he's been signed up for future appearances at HGO. He is one to watch.
Returning to the role of Rusalka's father that he sang in HGO's previous production that starred Renée Fleming (1991), Fink has a ball as the near naked water sprite. With deep-dish baritone, he wallows in Dvorák's randy old gnome. At one point, the dancers form themselves into river boulders, upon which Vodnik lounges like an overripe fountain statue by Bernini. Grove can do no wrong, always conveying Jezibaba's intentions in her plummy mezzo and full-out acting. In the supporting roles of Gamekeeper and Kitchen Girl, tenor Keith Jameson (pulling double duty this month at HGO as Dr. Bartolo in Marriage of Figaro) and soprano Mane Galoyan bring lively characterization to their meddling peasants. The trio of wood nymphs, all current HGO Studio artists, are crisply sung by soprano D'Ana Lombard and mezzos Sofia Selowsky and Megan Samarin. The future of opera always looks brightest when young singers are so mature and competent, on the cusp of greatness.
It's the artistic team we want to see again at HGO. What imagination and taste. In a combo of contemporary stagecraft and old-fashioned showbiz pow, these fine artists breathe penetrating new life into Dvorák's timeless tale. Everything is simple, elemental, elegant in execution, and beautifully thought out. (There are those superlatives again!) Production designed by English phenom Melly Still; sets and costumes by Rae Smith (Tony winner for War Horse); atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable and Jeremy Turnbull; movement by Rick Nodine and Christian From; and conducted with warmth and passion by Harry Bicket (who has more personal involvement with the Czech master than he has with Viennese Mozart in Figaro); Dvorák's sublime Rusalka is opera at its most grand, intimate and ultimately shattering. A standing ovation without parallel.
Rusalka continues on February 6, 9 and 12. Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For more information, visit hgo.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$322.