Some would argue that Otto Schenk's productions are traditional to the point of excess and, in many instances, out-dated; however, that was not the case for his 1993 production of "Rusalka", which was revived for the Met's 2013/2014 season and Live in HD broadcast feature via Fathom Events. Schenk's mysterious and picturesque sets and lavish costumes created an adequately transcendent fairy-tale world for the ill-fated love story to unfold in.
That being said, the production wasn't without its problems. Renee Fleming, who headed the cast in the role of the water nymph Rusalka, faced the night's most restricting staging challenge during her first appearance in Act I. While her father, Vodnik the water gnome, is halfway below the stage (partially submerged in a make-shift lake), Rusalka is far above, confined to the branch of a tree. The hows and whys of this particular setup are not apparent, but the result was a visual disconnect during the otherwise poignant father-daughter duet and a dramatically flat rendition of Rusalka's famous "Song to the Moon."
Once she had her two feet on the ground, Fleming's physical and dramatic portrayal improved exponentially, but even from the restricting treetop her vocal performance was never lacking. Dvorak's operatic masterpiece was the perfect showcase for Fleming's creamy tone, penetrating upper register, and fluency with long, opulent melodies. It's no accident that this became a signature role for Fleming's agile and charismatic voice.
During Rusalka's mute scenes at the beginning of Act II, Fleming maintained an active presence amid the fierce duets of mezzo-soprano Emily Magee and tenor Piotr Beczala. Beczala, who sang the flighty Prince, and Fleming shared a compelling chemistry that gave pitiful voice to Rusalka's muteness. Beczala succeeded in illuminating the complex emotional range of the Prince by managing the transition from the enchanted Prince of Act I to the spiteful betrayer of Act II smoothly and believably. His handsome tone exuded confidence and longing and the passion he instilled in the Prince's every emotion, whether love, anger, or sorrow, gave Prince rare depth.
The two prominent mezzo-sopranos, Emily Magee and Dolora Zajick, in the roles of the Foreign Princess and Jezibaba respectively, commanded the stage with their steely tones and mocking deportment. Unfortunately any jitters Zajick's menacing "Čury mury fuk" could have roused were stifled by the parade of children in campy, over-sided animal costumes that made it hard to take the scene seriously; In her Act III reprise, however, Zajick was able to make Jezibaba's derisive and abusive nature frightfully clear.
Painted green from head to foot and adorned in shimmering tapers of cloth, complete with a long mossy beard, bass John Relyea, in the role of Vodnik, was painstakingly transformed into a creature of myth. Despite his outlandish appearance, Relyea's Vodnik was the heart of the opera. His sturdy tone filled out the luscious harmonies and handled the slow, mournful phrases with both gravity and warmth. There was authority in this strong bass, but never condescension. Despite Vodnik's warnings, Rusalka seeks the love of a mortal and, though he knows it will be her ruin, he both pities and defends the daughter who betrayed his realm. Relyea's doleful "Beda, Uboha Rusalko Bleda" captured both the height of his anguish and his unconditional compassion for the daughter who has naively forsaken him.
Dvorak's "Rusalka" synthesizes unbridled lyricism with charming folk melodies and Yannick Nezet-Seguin in the pit highlighted the best of both. The three wood sprites brought an earthy and voluptuous sound to their flirtatious trios. In the bleak third act, the innocent vanity of the wood sprites allowed the audience to breath and be charmed by their ephemeral gaiety.
The night reached a musical and dramatic high point during the Prince and Rusalka's sublime final love duet. Though things end tragically for Rusalka, Fleming and Beczala's bottomless passion and the mounting orchestral energy brought the night to a satisfying conclusion.