Soprano Joyce El-Khoury in the title rôle of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka at North Carolina Opera, 30 March 2014 [Photo by Curtis Brown, © 2014 by North Carolina Opera]
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Rusalka, Opus 114—Joyce El-Khoury (Rusalka), Russell Thomas (Princ), Margaret Gawrysiak (Ježibaba), Heidi Melton (Cizí kněžna), Tom Fox (Vodník), Rachel E. Copeland (Lesní žínka), Kristin Schwecke (Jiná žínka), Jami Rhodes (Třeti žínka), Donald Hartmann (Hajný), Shannon French (Kuchtík), Scott MacLeod (Lovec); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Directed by Crystal Manich; lighting designed by Ross Kolman; costumes designed by Amanda Seymour; North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Sunday, 30 March 2014]
In most performances, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is an opera that impresses the ears far more readily than it moves the heart. Premièred in Prague in 1901, the opera is a setting of a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil that deals with a variation of a familiar fairy tale that is both endearingly timeless and surprisingly modern. Though hers is the title rôle, Rusalka is, like the Färberin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, denied an identity of her own: in Czech, the word ‘rusalka’ denotes any nymph or sprite, so Dvořák’s heroine is a generality; or, as the text of the opera suggests, a figure whose existence spans two worlds without truly belonging to either of them. Among the characters in Rusalka, only the sorceress Ježibaba can claim any sort of legitimate individuality, though she, too, is ultimately an archetype. In this sense, Rusalka could be argued to be the most ‘operatic’ of operas, the characters who populate it symbolizing the ambiguities that define the genre: the heroine who both is and is not what she seems, willing to suffer the consequences of her dream of love rather than relinquishing it; the hero whose sincerity is undermined by doubt and manipulation; the quintessential ‘other woman,’ not so much a rival to be hated as a representation of the conventionally sensual aspect of the eternal feminine; the stern father whose worldview compels him to condemn what he cannot control; the good-natured sisters whose simplicity causes them to reject what they cannot understand. Dvořák brought these figures to life with greater alacrity than most composers might have managed, tingeing the opera with the understated melancholy and fantastically original response to nature that pervade much of Czech art and music, but the very impersonality of the principal characters can hold an audience at arm’s length. Every barrier between Dvořák’s score and the audience was torn down by North Carolina Opera’s inspiring semi-staged performance in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. Directed by Crystal Manich, the staging made no attempt at giving the opera any sort of artificial ‘relevance.’ Rather, all efforts were focused on giving Dvořák’s score the best performance possible. The talented, unusually homologous cast having achieved this rivetingly, often unforgettably, the opera spoke for itself. More than four thousand miles from Prague, Rusalka came to life in Raleigh with unmistakable significance and boundless beauty. The ears of the capacity audience were undoubtedly impressed, and the enthusiasm of the ovations asserted that Dvořák’s ‘poor, lost Rusalka’ sank as surely into the hearts of those who heard her sad tale as into the depths from which she emerged.
Both musically and dramatically, Dvořák’s score has many similarities with the operas of Richard Wagner. Rusalka and the Foreign Princess (Cizí knĕžna) are close cousins of Elisabeth and Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and the Prince (Princ) bears passing resemblances to Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Parsifal. Though Vodník is a Wotan-like figure, not least in his resigned renunciation of his beloved daughter, the opening scene of Rusalka inhabits the world of Das Rheingold, Dvořák’s Wood Sprites’ taunting of Vodník paralleling Wagner’s Rhinemaidens’ playful rejection of Alberich. North Carolina Opera’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers left no Wagnerian nuance of Dvořák’s score unexplored, his expansive but always controlled conducting spurring the North Carolina Opera Orchestra to playing that combined fortifying explosions of sound where appropriate with moments of exquisite delicacy. Owing to the rich resources of musical talent that have been lured to central North Carolina in recent years, the NC Opera Orchestra is a far finer ensemble than a visitor to Raleigh might expect it to be, and the instrumentalists displayed great refinement and virtuosity in their execution of Dvořák’s score. In particular, the demanding brass and woodwind parts were superbly played, with almost none of the flubbed notes and missed entries that affect the playing of many regional ensembles. Harpist Jacqueline Barlett proved herself to be a consummate mistress of her instrument, playing the critical passages of her part with rhythmic vitality and tenacious artistry. Though they never appeared on stage, the North Carolina Opera Chorus sang vibrantly, with only notes at the tops of their ranges challenging the singers. The blend among voices was masterfully achieved, and the singers—numbering fourteen ladies and eleven gentlemen—held their own against Dvořák’s orchestra in full cry. In a performance in which many passages were delivered by chorus, horn, and soloists from off stage, balances and tautness of ensemble were maintained with admirable consistency. Maestro Myers’s baton technique and faculty for cueing singers are noticeably superior to those of many young conductors (and, indeed, those of many older, more established conductors, as well) and he is obviously comfortable leading opera. His mastery of Rusalka was evident, and under his direction the performance had both the sweep and the subtlety that the music deserves.
In his brief appearance on stage and, especially, in his lines sung from the wings, baritone Scott MacLeod—also the Chorus Master—was a strong, resonant Huntsman (Lovec), his singing of ‘Jel mladý lovec, jel a jel, laň bilou vlese uvidĕl’ jovial but vaguely mysterious and grandly masculine. Also ringing of voice and charismatic of demeanor was bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as the Gamekeeper (Hajný), whose scenes with his nephew—the Turnspit (Kuchtík), sung with wide-eyed humor by mezzo-soprano Shannon French—were engaging and genuinely funny. The genial comedy of Mr. Hartmann’s and Ms. French’s fear of Ježibaba, not played too broadly, provided welcome levity in the otherwise bleak course of the drama. Soprano Rachel E. Copeland and mezzo-sopranos Kristin Schwecke and Jami Rhodes sang lustrously as the trio of Wood Sprites. Ms. Copeland’s singing of the First Sprite’s song of admiration for her beautiful hair, ‘Mám zlaté vlásky mám,’ was appropriately luminous, and when Ms. Schwecke’s Second Sprite and Ms. Rhodes’s Third Sprite joined her to complete the trio in praise of their youthful enticements the close harmonies were sung with accuracy but every appearance of spontaneity. In the opera’s first scene, the three ladies’ singing glowed with gaiety, and Ms. Copeland’s technique proved equal to the First Sprite’s long-sustained trill and top As. All of America’s regional opera companies should aspire to the high standard of casting of secondary rôles achieved by North Carolina Opera in this performance.
Heidi Melton’s Foreign Princess was a portrayal of Wagnerian amplitude and bel canto poise. The Princess’s vocal line rises to top B♭ within six bars of her entrance, followed in short order by a top C in duet with the Prince over the full power of Dvořák’s orchestration. It is not an extensive rôle, but every phrase that the Princess is given to sing is important and vocally dangerous. If Ms. Melton was daunted by a single note of her part, it could not be heard in her singing. The power and security of her vocalism across the wide range of her music were wonderful, and the insouciant glamour of her performance was seductive. The suggestiveness with which Ms. Melton sang ‘Ó, vystrojte se v šaty přebohaté: mám dvornost jeho vy však srdce máte,’ in which the Princess tells the mute Rusalka that even without words she has captivated the Prince’s heart, was illustrative of the presiding enigma of her performance as a whole. While there was no doubt that this Princess was a serious suitor for the Prince’s affections and a powerfully alluring woman, her reactions to Rusalka seemed more mystified than mean-spirited. Indeed, the only real derision in her performance was leveled at the Prince when, in the final moments of Act Two, she spurned his attention, as much horrified by the Prince’s rejection of Rusalka as by the sudden appearance of Vodník. A less insightful singer might well have made the Princess a mindless, unfeeling virago, but Ms. Melton lent the character a dignity that, in additional to befitting a princess, heightened the sense of isolation that drives the Prince to madness. Ms. Melton’s voice is one of true Hochdramatische proportions, but she encountered no problems with the tessitura of the Princess’s music. The uniqueness of her dramatic portrait was enhanced by the pleasure of hearing the part’s top notes sung so felicitously and forcefully.
Droll, peculiar, and credibly threatening in turn, mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak’s Ježibaba was a quirky creation, and, like her colleagues, Ms. Gawrysiak sang the rôle with confidence and vocal authority. Ms. Gawrysiak punched out the repeated low B♭s in her opening music with columnar strength, but the frequent ascents to E♭ and F at the top of the staff also held no terrors for her. The climactic top G♯s, A and B♭ of her music in Act One were delivered with panache. In Ježibaba’s scene with Rusalka in Act Three, Ms. Gawrysiak brought startling venom to her declarations that the only possible atonement for Rusalka’s misbegotten assumption of human form was the spilling of human blood. Dvořák and Kvapil offer no explicit explanation for Ježibaba’s hatred for humanity, but the passion of Ms. Gawrysiak’s performance suggested that there was some intensely painful history at the core of her abhorrence. In her final appearance, when the Gamekeeper and his nephew consult her for advice in curing the Prince’s increasing malcontent, Ježibaba seems converted into the twin sister of the Knusperhexe in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and Ms. Gawrysiak clearly savored the transformation. A woman was always perceptible beneath the witch’s exterior in Ms. Gawrysiak’s performance, and the music was sung athletically but attractively.
An accomplished Wagnerian, baritone Tom Fox brought the weight, intelligence, and world-weariness of an important Wotan to his performance as Vodník. In his opening scene with the Wood Sprites, Mr. Fox sang and acted with whimsy, but the tone of his performance—and the coloration of his timbre—changed immediately upon Rusalka’s entrance. The sinewy earthiness of Mr. Fox’s voice was tremendously effective in Vodník’s music, and the exasperation, vexation, and indignation that flooded the voice as he recognized that Rusalka was not to be dissuaded from her quest to become human were bracing. The resonance and security of Mr. Fox’s lower register were telling throughout the performance, and he approached all of his high Es and Fs without hesitation. A few of the part’s highest notes stretched Mr. Fox’s resources, but he maintained an appreciable accuracy of pitch even on tones sustained by sheer will. The tenderness with which Mr. Fox’s Vodník received the despondent Rusalka in Act Two was palpably conveyed, and the visceral impact of his singing of ‘V jinou spĕš náruč, spĕš a spĕš, objetí jejímu neujdeš,’ his denunciation of the Prince for having discarded Rusalka for the arms of another woman, was engrossing. In Act Three, Mr. Fox reached grandiose peaks of dramatic expression, infusing his performance with every changing emotion of Vodník’s predicament. His singing in the scene in which he hurls out to the Gamekeeper and Turnspit that the Prince has betrayed Rusalka’s love rather than falling victim to her pulsed with sorrow and paternal umbrage. After singing to the Wood Sprites that the innocence and light-hearted joy of their lake were destroyed by Rusalka’s fate, the solemnity with which Mr. Fox left the stage was heartbreaking. Like Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, Vodník is ultimately unable to reconcile himself with his daughter’s betrayal, and his offstage singing of ‘Nadarmo v loktech zemře ti, marny jsou všechny obĕti’ (‘Sacrifices are in vain, his dying is no salvation’) as the Prince dies in Rusalka’s embrace was devastating. Musically and dramatically, Vodník is a grueling rôle, one which many singers are grateful merely to survive. Mr. Fox gave his all in a performance that did not merely survive but wholly conquered the part.
Tenor Russell Thomas worked diligently to make the Prince an agreeable character, and fine as his uncomplicated acting was throughout the performance it was the polish and basic loveliness of his singing that compelled affection. The wide-eyed wonder of his first encounter with the newly-human Rusalka was touching, and the assurance with which he took the Prince’s many top A♭s and pair of B♭♭s in the final moments of Act One was spine-tingling. His frustration with the still-silent Rusalka in Act Two was expressive of true passion, and though his acting convincingly depicted both the unhinged desperation of his longing for Rusalka and the reluctant distraction of his attention, Mr. Thomas’s Prince’s wooing of the Foreign Princess was never more than half-hearted. When asked by the Foreign Princess in the closing pages of Act Two where Rusalka had gone, Mr. Thomas’s singing of ‘Kam prchla? Milý Bůh to ví’ (‘Where have you gone? Only God knows’) was suffused with emotion. When the Prince entered in search of Rusalka in Act Three, his desolation was that of a man mad with grief and guilt, and the eloquence of Mr. Thomas’s singing, again making light of the high tessitura, was wrenching. When Rusalka appeared at last and sang ‘Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš’ (‘Do you still recognize me, my love?’), the agony in Mr. Thomas’s singing was calmed, and he accepted at once that the only liberation possible for him was death in the throes of Rusalka’s kiss. His cries of ‘Líbej mne, líbej, mír mi přej’ (‘Kiss me, kiss me, set me free’) were piercing and all the more crushing for being so resplendently sung, the rise to top C managed without strain. The ease with which Mr. Thomas mastered the range of his music throughout the performance was awesome, and his thoughtful acting was crowned by an understated, sensual account of the Prince’s death scene.
The assumption of the title rôle by soprano Joyce El-Khoury belied that the part is new to her repertoire, her first performances of Rusalka having been in San Antonio earlier this year. [She will reprise the rôle in a concert performance in Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw on Saturday, 17 May.] Dramatically, perhaps the greatest challenges for a Rusalka are the scenes in Acts One and Two in which she must essentially take part in duets with the Prince without singing, her ability to speak having been sacrificed in her bargain with Ježibaba. Upon becoming human, the fascination with which Ms. El-Khoury’s Rusalka contemplated her newly-functional feet was fetching. In Act Two, her interaction with the Prince was delectable but troubling, her mimicking of his actions and expressions conveying her overwhelming desire to please him. Her increasing confusion at his violence was shattering, and the muted comeliness of her movements proved immensely effective. The rapt concentration with which she shrouded the Prince’s corpse in her veil and slowly left the stage in the opera’s last bars was acutely poignant. The unerring accomplishment of her acting was enhanced by the purity and stability of her singing. At her first entrance in Act One, it was apparent that Ms. El-Khoury had the music in both her voice and her heart, and her longing to be freed from the confines of her watery realm was the sentiment of poetry, not petulance. ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém,’ the celebrated ‘Song to the Moon,’ was ravishingly sung, the voice seeming to take on the silvery light of the moon to which Rusalka was singing and the fearsomely exposed rise to top B♭ negotiated with ardor and perfect intonation. In the scene with Ježibaba, the sincerity of Ms. El-Khoury’s singing—and the biting brilliance of her top A♯—might have convinced a less thorny sorceress to grant her every wish without stipulations. When Rusalka’s reunion with her father in Act Two restored her ability to speak, the tone poured out of Ms. El-Khoury as though a dam had burst: the top Gs and fortissimo top A that she produced as Rusalka sang of her shame had the force of thunderbolts. The richness of Ms. El-Khoury’s timbre enabled her to glide over Dvořák’s often dense orchestrations without forcing the voice, and even in moments of greatest dramatic duress she maintained her technical deportment. Her singing in the opening scene of Act Three, in which the vocal line often centers in the lower octave of the voice, was communicative of very personal feelings of loss and hopelessness, and her resolve in refusing Ježibaba’s suggestions of murder as the penance for her mistakes was imparted by her pair of flashing top B♭s. Near the end of the opera, her top B as she sang to the Prince that her only possible intervention in his life could be to end it bore the energy of all of the character’s suppressed emotions, and Rusalka’s repeated questions of why the Prince betrayed her—questions to which he never responded—were voiced with profound sadness but no bitterness. Though a young singer, Ms. El-Khoury brought an erudite sensitivity to her performance, and her fresh, golden-toned singing proffered an earnest, recondite portrait of Dvořák’s elusive heroine.
With so many opera companies on the brink of financial and artistic collapse, it is easy to lose sight of the perceptive, wonderfully satisfying music-making that continues to enliven concert halls and opera houses throughout the United States. Opera is an expensive enterprise, perhaps more ridiculously so now than ever before, but, like so many other aspects of life and Art, those events and institutions with the greatest financial backing are not always those that are the most artistically successful. Money attracts familiar names but not necessarily important voices, and the voices that North Carolina Opera engaged for this performance of Rusalka were not just important but ideal for the music. Above all, however, what this performance reaffirmed is that not even the most prodigious resources can buy heart. The heart of this Rusalka throbbed with yearning and dismay, and every tear in the theatre will be a cherished memory in the souls of those who were fortunate enough to witness it.