Monday, June 17, 2019

Dvořák Triumphs at San Francisco Opera

Rusalka (Rachel Willis-Sørensen) telling her father Vodník (Kristinn Sigmundsson) of her desire to become mortal (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Yesterday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera presented the first of five performances of Antonín Dvořák’s best known opera, his Opus 114 Rusalka. The Wikipedia list of Dvořák compositions accounts for thirteen operas, but Rusalka is the only one that has established a consistent international reputation. (There are several historical operas which are on a “cast of thousands” scale and are therefore understandably neglected. When Brilliant Classics decided to compile their Dvořák Edition box set, Rusalka was the only opera to be included.)

The idea behind the libretto can be traced back to Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Little Mermaid” and the novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, both of which involve love between a mortal man and a supernatural female of the water. Both of these are tragic tales; and Dvořák’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil saw no need to provide a more cheerful narrative. Nevertheless, he conceived a variety of ways to parallel the dark sides of the mortal and supernatural worlds; and Dvořák’s score brings keen musical insights to that darkness.

It is therefore appropriate to note that, while Dvořák was highly indebted to Johannes Brahms for the rise of his career, he took a great interest in how Richard Wagner could realize intense drama through music. Thus, there are motifs that pervade the score to reflect key traits of personality in the narrative; and at least one of them makes itself known during the overture. Furthermore, it is difficult to listen to the rich trio work of the three wood nymphs at the beginning of Rusalka’s first act and not think of the nymphs of the Rhine from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

My guess is that Dvořák was impressed with how Wagner could blend a trio of female voices and was determined to try his own hand at it. The result is decidedly unique and cannot be dismissed as “imitation Wagner;” and yesterday it was given a splendid account by three Adler Fellows, soprano Natalie Image, mezzo Simone McIntosh (making her SFO debut), and mezzo Ashley Dixon. (The subsequent interplay between these wood nymphs and the water goblin Vodník, sung by Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, similarly triggered memories of Rheingold.)

Nevertheless, it is the relationship between the water nymph of the opera’s title (a role debut for soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen) and a prince who is never given a name (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) that motivates the narrative of this opera. David McVicar conceived a production with a prologue structured around that prince. He is presented as a husband so bored with both his life and his wife that he takes poison, and the opera then unfolds as his dying thoughts. Personally, I do not think that the prince’s head is big enough to hold all those dreams (with a polite nod to Bernard Pomerance’s Elephant Man play); but McVicar’s silent prologue can be easily ignored once Dvořák’s music gets down to business.

What I did enjoy about McVicar’s approach was his clear statement of the many ways in which the world of mortal men and women was destroying the natural world. There is a significant symmetry to Kvapil’s libretto, which begins in the natural world, moves to the prince’s world for the second act, and returns to the natural world in the third. The staging makes it clear that the natural world has had a rough time of it while Rusalka was in the prince’s world. (She was not particularly happy there, either, which is why she returns for the third act.) The only denizen of the natural world that does not seem to have suffered erosion is the witch Ježibaba (mezzo Jamie Barton), who enables Rusalka’s transformation.

Thus, once things move on from that prologue, McVicar never compromises the fact that the purported romantic feelings that drive this narrative ultimately lead to very dark places. Unfortunately, much of that darkness is blunted by ensemble work that seems to have been developed by McVicar in partnership with his choreographer Andrew George. In dealing with the collective frolicking of nymphs of both wood and water, it seemed as if both of them were trying to get in touch with their inner Bob Fosse. Then there was this trio of crows that seem to have served as Ježibaba’s familiars but had Walt Disney written all over them. (Think of the crows in the original version of Dumbo.)

Minor quibbles aside, one cannot acknowledge the many delights of yesterday’s performance without making note of the splendid work of conductor Eun Sun Kim. Currently Principal Guest Conductor with the Houston Grand Opera, Kim not only made her SFO debut but also was conducting her first Czech opera. Dvořák clearly knew how to work with rich instrumental resources, evoking imaginative sonorities through his balancing of those resources. All of that richness emerged from the orchestra pit in full splendor, always blending consistently with both solo and choral work on the stage. Kim is clearly a conductor that deserves more attention.

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