Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak

Photo by Michael Cooper

The COC production of Rusalka is perfection. The conducting, the singing, the set, costume, and lighting design all combine together to create a magical aura as befits what Czech composer Antonin Dvorak called a lyric fairytale. Like most fairytales, however, Rusalka is dark, and one can’t help but be moved at the end.

Rusalka, a water nymph, falls in love with a human prince, and in order to be with him, she seeks help from the witch Jezibaba. The price for taking on human form is the loss of her voice. If the prince betrays her, they are both doomed. Of course he does, and the prince dies from Rusalka’s kiss, while her destiny is now to lure humans to a watery death. Not exactly Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

In this 2014 production borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, the vision of Scottish director Sir David McVicar absolutely brings out the intentions of the composer. Without putting anything on stage to compromise the fairytale aspects of Dvorak’s score, McVicar and set designer, fellow Scot John Macfarlane, have conjured up the gloomy forest that is the domain of nymphs, sprites, goblins and witches. Tangled roots and dark waters speak of dangerous magic lurking in the pale, ominous moonlight. McVicar even has the creatures engage in wanton sex like a forest bacchanalia. Nothing is benign in these haunted woods.

Photo by Michael Cooper

The human world carries on the sombre look of McVicar’s vision. The prince lives in a gothic castle whose great hall is panelled in dark wood covered with the mounted heads of countless deer. The cathedral ceilings mirror the towering trees of the forest. Death is the dominate theme, and the thick leaded windows add to the heaviness of the atmosphere. German costume designer Moritz Junge has clothed the forest nymphs in white-blue diaphanous robes and the goblins and witches in black, grey and muted blue-greens. The humans, dressed more or less in the 1901 time period of Rusalka’s premiere, carry on the dark palette. Mcfarlane has also given us a realistic kitchen, somewhere in the bowels of the castle, filled with the carcasses of slaughtered animals. As the gamekeeper and his turnspit nephew discuss the goings-on in the castle, the boy is stuffing a large chicken, surrounded by blood. You can almost feel the heat pouring out from the cavernous open fireplace, and smell the offal that pervades the noisome place.

Photo by Michael Cooper

The addition of ten dancers allows McVicar to people his forest and provide the ballet in the great hall. I assume they are also the cooks and scullions that populate the kitchen. Kudos to American lighting designer David Finn for knowing how to evoke melancholy both in the goblin and human worlds. Welsh choreographer Andrew George makes the antics of the forest world look suitably rambunctious while coming up with a classical ballet in the great hall that re-enacts the meeting of the prince and Rusalka, and their troubled relationship.

Dvorak was very influenced by Richard Wagner, so the lush score contains elaborate orchestrations, dense atmospheric music, and gorgeous mood-setting leitmotifs. Brilliant conductor and COC music director, Johannes Debus, who always details the dramatic accents with consummate skill, shows another side of his musical acumen. Dvorak’s score contains moments that shimmer with magic, or contain great tenderness, or swell with romance. It is not so much the drama, but the evocation of mood, and Debus’ conducting is spot-on. The COC chorus under Sandra Horst once again proves its talent, whether as the ethereal offstage voices of the woodland creatures, particularly the women, or the lively guests at a wedding.

Which brings us to the soloists who are all marvellous. There are three sopranos in this opera who offer contrasting sounds. American/Canadian Sondra Radvanovsky (Rusalka) is one of the most important singers in the world today. She has a big lustrous voice, but one that is honey-coated which gives it beautiful colour and warmth. She also has the innate ability to appear girlish. Her acting chops are wonderful as demonstrated by the second act where she is virtually silent. American Keri Alkema (Foreign Princess and the object of the Prince’s desire) also has a big voice, but one that commands the ear with its bright, sharp clarity. The Foreign Princess is an interesting figure because when the Prince betrays Rusalka by turning his attention to her, she condemns him soundly, and Alkema pulls off this disgust with a torrent of withering sound. Canadian Lauren Eberwein (Turnspit) is a light lyric soprano, but although her voice radiates sweetness, it also has heft that can cut through a big orchestra. On the mezzo-soprano side of things, Jezibaba requires the big robust voice of the kind that Verdi invented for his mature operas, and Russian Elena Manistina is a true Verdian, with a delivery that is big, rich, fulsome, and hearty.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch (Prince) is tall and handsome, which must be a gift of the gods for tall sopranos like Radvanovsky. He can also sing up a storm, displaying a romantic sound and passionate delivery that can stay firmly in a high tessitura. Dvorak, à la Wagner, has given the Prince some notes that reach into the stratosphere, which Cernoch manages with little sign of strain. Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan (the water goblin Vodnik and Rusalka’s father) has the lusty, commanding, rolling sound that the role requires. I also love his oversize gnome hands and feet. Canadian Matthew Cairns (Gamekeeper), currently a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, is still a baby tenor, but possesses an attractive light lyric voice that has warmth and colour. It will be interesting to see where his talent takes him. Canadian Vartan Gabrielian (Hunter) shows off a rich bass-baritone in his small role. He is another one to watch. The three Wood Nymphs, Canadians all (soprano Anna-Sophie Neher, and mezzo-sopranos Jamie Groote and Lauren Segal) sing beautifully together in gorgeous ethereal harmony that reminds one of Wagner’s Rhine Maidens. It is important to note that Neher, Groote, and Gabrielian, along with Cairns, are all Ensemble members, while Eberwein and Segal are graduates, which speaks of the high quality of the Studio’s talent.

McVicar’s production of Rusalka is proof that stage directors don’t have to be modernist auteurs, but can bring real depth to an opera by a traditional approach that serves the composer very well.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Canadian Opera Company, Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak, conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Sir David McVicar, Four Seasons Centre, Oct. 12 to 26, 2019.

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