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Lyric's epic staging of Dvořák’s Rusalka comes once in a blue moon

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Todd Rosenberg

Rusalka

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It’s not often one hears an opera in Czech. And even more seldom to see one where the title character is mute and the lead belts out an aria while in a prostrate position, but Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka delivers these rarities and more (including ballet choreography by Andrew George).

The folk fairytale that initially premiered in 1901 follows a water nymph who falls for a human prince and subsequently wishes to exchange her native environment, family life and true self to become human too. But unlike many happily-ever-after stories, this one echos the adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

As a fish out of water in human form, Rusalka (Soprano Ana María Martínez) soon regrets her decision, especially when she learns her prince (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) isn’t so charming. Although engaged to marry Rusalka, his attention is more engaged by a visiting princess (mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova) causing Rusalka to seek solace from her water-goblin father (bass-baritone Eric Owens), and a magical solution from a witch (mezzo-soprano Jill Grove) to no avail.

From the longing for love heard in the aria “Song to the Moon” to the futile sacrifices made by both Rusalka and the prince at the story’s end, the opera’s tragedy is relayed through sensual performances punctuated by the powerful orchestra conducted by Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis.

Thanks to set designer John Macfarlane and lighting designer David Finn, the production is epic in a visual way. Unfortunately at 3 hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions, the greatness of the production also extends to the long time in which it takes to tell a very simple story. In this sense, the minimal lyrics don't match the larger-than-life direction of Sir David McVicar, who also tackles Ancient Rome via Mozart in Lyric’s La Clemenza di Tito through March 23.

Made possible by The Monument Trust, an anonymous donor, Marion A. Cameron, Exelon, and Sidley Austin LLP, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lryic’s production of Rusalka can be seen at 7:30 p.m on March 7 and March 10; and at 2 p.m. on March 16. For tickets and additional information, visit www.lyricopera.org.

An exhibition of Macfarlane’s designs for Rusalka is on view through April 1 at the Maya Polsky Gallery on 215 W. Superior Street in Chicago. For details, visit www.mayapolskygallery.com.