Arts & Events

Dvorák’s RUSALKA Is A Resounding Success

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday June 20, 2019 - 04:12:00 PM

In a summer season at San Francisco Opera where until now no production came anyway near being an unbridled success, we finally have in Dvorák’s Rusalka a production where everything came together beautifully. Rusalka is a fairytale folk opera rooted in Dvorák’s native Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. With a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, based on fairy tales by Karel Jaromir Erben and Božena Němcová (and remotely based on “The Little Mermaid“ by Hans Christian Anderson), Dvorák’s Rusalka is set in the magical world of water sprites who cavort in forest lakes. These female nymphs of the waters exert an erotic allure on any human men who chance to encounter them.  

However, in this story, it is Rusalka, a water sprite, who falls in love with a human -- a prince, moreover -- whom she espies from her watery home in a forested lake. Enduring the pangs of love for this handsome prince, Rusalka wishes to become human so that she might experience love as humans do. So Rusalka makes a pact with a nature-sorceress, Jezibaba, who warns Rusalka this will likely not end well, but goes ahead and facilitates Rusalka’s transition from a water sprite to a human.  

This, in a nutshell, is the story that Antonin Dvorák set to music near the turn of the 20th century. The premiere of Dvorák’s Rusalka was in Prague in 1901. San Francisco Opera has only offered one prior production of Rusalka before now, but that was a memorable one which I saw in 1995 featuring soprano Renée Fleming as Rusalka. Renée Fleming has no doubt done more than anyone else to bring Dvorák’s Rusalka to the attention of American audiences. And she has achieved overwhelming success in this endeavour, for Rusalka is now much in demand. 

San Francisco Opera’s current singer of this title-role is Rachel Willis-Sørensen, a native of the state of Washington. She made her debut here to great acclaim as Eva in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in 2015. Now Rachel Willis-Sørensen returns to assume a role debut as Rusalka. In the first performance of Dvorak’s Rusalka in this summer season -- a Sunday, June 16 matinee -- Rachel Willis-Sørensen was nothing short of sensational! Her soprano has a rapier-like sharpness, but she can also sound lush and alluring. All of these vocal subtleties were in prominenet display in her performance on June 16. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s “Hymn to the Moon“ in Act I, introduced by harp music, was a thing of beauty! Throughout the entire three-Act opera, Rachel Willis-Sørensen was absolutlely electrifyting as Rusalka! Moreover, her acting ability brought the trials and tribulations of Rusalka’s attempt to experience human love clearly and expressively to the forefront of this fairytale opera.  

Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was excellent as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik, a water goblin. Vodnik warns his daughter of the perils of becoming human, and he never ceases lamenting the cruel fate of his “poor, pale Rusalka.“ In the role of Jezibaba, the forest sorceress, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was outstanding. Jezibaba warns Rusalka against becoming human, but she offers Rusalka a deal. If Rusalka agrees to give up the power of speech, Jezibaba will mix a potion to transform Rusalka into a mortal woman. Rusalka agrees, and in human form she wins the love of the Prince. But because she is now mute, Rusalka remains a mysterious outsider among human society. Even the Prince, admirably sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, is drawn to Rusalka much the same way all men are drawn to the lovely water sprites. For the Prince, Rusalka is as much a figment of his imagination as a real live woman. He brings Rusalka to his castle where he intends to marry her; but he confesses he hardly knows what to make of the mysterious Rusalka.  

Act II opens with a kitchen scene in the Prince’s palace. The Gamekeeper, sung by bass-baritone Philip Horst, and the Kitchen Boy, sung by mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm, gossip about the forthcoming marriage of the Prince and Rusalka. They fear witchcraft is behind the strange, speechless Rusalka. The scene shifts to the ballroom where a Foreign Princess arrives as one of the invited guests. She observes the Prince and Rusalka, then begins flirting with the Prince. Rusalka is jealous. Moreover, Rusalka, a child of nature, feels not at all at home in this hall mounted with the heads of stags lining the walls as hunting trophies.  

The Foreign Princess, admirably sung by Canadian soprano Sarah Cambridge, wins over the affection of the Prince. In an aside to Rusalka, the Prince tells Rusalka he finds her embraces cold and lacking in passion. Rusalka leaves the palace and encounters her father, Vodnik. Regaining her speech, she tells Vodnik of her despair. There are things about human love she simply doesn’t understand. Vodnik enters the palace and confronts the Prince, cursing him for his treatment of Rusalka. The Prince turns to the Foreign Princess in search of help; but she cruelly laughs at him and advises him to follow his bride into hell. 

In Act III we are back at the forest lake where the opera began. Alone and unhappy, Rusalka longs in vain to be reunited with her sister water sprites. But this is impossible. The Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy come to seek help from Jezibaba to cure 

the strange illness that has befallen the Prince. Interrupting them, Vodnik, Rusalka’s father, chases them off in fear. Jezibaba laughs haughtily at the stupidity of humankind. The Prince then arrives at the edge of the lake where he first encountered Rusalka. Now he searches obsessively for her. Stepping out from the shadows, Rusalka now speaks to the Prince for the first time. She asks why he betrayed her. His only reply is to beg for a kiss. When Rusalka tells him her kiss will be fatal to him, the Prince replies he would gladly die for her kiss. Rusalka kisses him and the Prince dies. Rusalka asks God to have mercy on his soul. Then Rusalka vanishes into thin air.  

This production of Dvorak’s Rusalka by David McVicar premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014. Our San Francisco Opera revival of this productioni is directed by Leah Housman. In nearly every respect it is an excellent production. The one false note, however, occurs right at the start during the overture. A man dressed in evening clothes enters and walks across the front of the stage. Who is this man? Then a woman in a flaming red dress walks across the stage and silently confronts the man. Who is this woman? Suddenly, he falls to the ground, and she stalks off. What in the world are we supposed to make of this? It was totally confusing to me. When I inquired in the Press Room during the first intermission about this bit of nonsense, I was told the woman was the Foreign Princess and the man was the Prince. That answer didn’t make things better, however, for we had no way of knowing who these people were when the opera had only just begun and we hadn’t yet met any of the characters. 

The stage sets by John McFarlane were very expressive. The forested lake where the water sprites cavort was surrounded by a tangled web of trree-trunks, through which 

a full moon shone mysteriously. The water sprites or wood nymphs were admirably sung by soprano Natalie Image, mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon. Baritone Andrew Manea sang the cameo role of the Hunter. The Solo Dancers were Rachel Speidel Little and Christopher Nachtrab. The Chorus sang well under the direction of Ian Robertson. Making her San Francisco Opera debut was South Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim, who presided over a wholly successful Rusalka. There are four more performances of Rusalka on June 19, 22, 25, and 28. Don’t miss it!