Sunday, June 23, 2019

More than a tale of love and sacrifice, director David McVicar's Rusalka emphasises a universal tragedy at San Francisco Opera

I had often approached Rusalka with a degree of scepticism. When I see it, I’m always reminded of the spell it must have spun. It was the first opera I saw - an English National Opera production back in 1984. Only a fragmented memory of that evening remains although I remember nodding off along the way in those head dropping moments that instantly wake you back up. For whatever reason, I haven’t stopped going to see opera ever since. In San Francisco Opera’s new production, originally directed by David McVicar for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014 and seen here under revival director Leah Hausman, the spell has been recast with such potency in a magnificent and mystical staging that I was on my feet, converted forever and swimming in the depths of its various themes. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s evocative work has found in McVicar’s brave and visionary concept a perfectly harmonised home.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka
In Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, drawn from various near and distant sources from folklore and fairy tales, the Slavic mythological 'rusalka' - a water nymph who inhabits rivers and lakes - is the subject of a story that inspired and is most recognisable in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s lesser known Undine. At its core, Rusalka is a turbulent tale of love and sacrifice but other themes abound in this saddening fairy tale about a water nymph who falls for a prince and risks everything to become mortal in order to attain his love.

McVicar delves deeper than the depths of Rusalka’s watery abode, diving beyond emotional tribulations and casting a concept in a contrasting and haunting inky-hued and silvery form that puts man in conflict with nature. Kvapil’s libretto alludes to this interpretation. With it, a dark fairytale is turned into a universal tragedy. From the sides of the stage, the presence of a massive retaining wall demands curiosity, its infrastructural intrusion on the moonlit, leafless wooded landscape rendering the natural beauty of Rusalka’s lake a murky marshy habit. Even the forest nymphs, who dance about inelegantly as depraved creatures in soiled attire, appear stained by man’s progress.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and
Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince
The prince is a huntsman, his animal kill covering the palace ballroom - a startlingly beautiful panelled and trussed medieval hall - in exaggerated, informative intent. In the kitchen too, before the grand ball, emphasis on man’s barbarism against the natural world is portrayed with cuts of bloody hanging meat and, comic as it appears, the kitchen hand’s turkey gutting and stuffing is a grossly forced act. And then it dawned on me that during the overture’s dramatic swing, the prince raises his hand in a gesture of longing and loss to an impressive large-scaled painting of Rusalka’s realm in which he will be drawn back to. A longing for Rusalka? In retrospect, that gesture symbolises humanity’s shame for the catastrophe imposed on nature that cannot be undone. For its three-act entirety, the work is given superlative visual allure and stimulation from McVicar’s creative team (sets by John Macfarlane, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting by David Finn).

Musically and vocally, too, it is carried off with highly impressive results. Within Dvořák’s lush orchestration there’s a whiff of Wagner, a sense of Strauss and a touch of Tchaikovsky among his influences and conductor Eun Sun Kim, in her company debut, captures the darkness, the gossamer-like, the bombastic and mystery of the score with elan.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba
American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Rusalka is a breathtaking display of stirring vocal power against the agonised hopelessness she has finding happiness in neither a watery world nor that of the prince’s. Intrinsically an embodiment of nature, lithe and melancholic, Willis-Sørensen garners sympathy for Rusalka’s plight as much as displeasure in watching her desperation for love directed to a misogynistically portrayed prince. In both lyrical and dramatic splendour, the top of the voice gleams while the dark undercurrents of the low range stream without hindrance. Act 1’s celebrated aria, “Song to the Moon” is beguiling, the vocal artistry and effect in Willis-Sorensen’s command setting a quivering trepidation in motion, alongside her invocation to the moon to shine its light and her being on the prince, that pitifully verges on prescience.

Imposing stentorian American tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s Prince is handsomely distinguished and utterly unlikeable. For a man who sees Rusalka as a trophy of the hunt, every kiss comes with an ugly force that signifies mans assault on nature and Jovanovich’s vocal muscularity and compelling acting suited the role perfectly. The fabulously rich and striking resonance of Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge plants determination and jealousy with ease on the Foreign Princess. Surrounded by her fine trio of sinister flapping and pecking crows, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has no trouble combining a smug and menacing Ježibaba with mountains of smouldering vocal contortions as a seemingly embattled protector of nature.

Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess
As Rusalka’s father, the water goblin Vodník, Icelandic Kristinn Sigmundsson’s hefty bass and nuanced acting strike a strong relationship with fatherly duties and nature’s seeming cautioning-like indicator. Smaller roles are strongly filled with mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as the kitchen hand and bass-baritone Philip Horst as the gamekeeper and Natalie Image, Simone McIntosh and Ashley Dixon harmonise delightfully as the wood nymphs over music that surrounds them in a most Wagnerian manner.

When the tale reaches the finale, an aching sense of remorse peels out across the landscape and there seems hope for the natural world. Under the spell of its visually dark and enticing complexity, luscious orchestral tapestry and splendid vocal ardency, you find it’s easy to understand seeing it just once is not enough for some besotted opera goers.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 28th June, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing, nice article!. Thank you.
    Khách hàng sẽ cảm thấy hài lòng khi sử dụng những dịch vụ như: vận tải bắc nam, dịch vụ bốc xếp, chuyển phát nhanh, cho thuê xe tải, ship cod,... của Proship. Chúng tôi đảm bảo hàng hóa quá khách hàng luôn được an toàn trong quá trình vận chuyển, thời gian vận chuyển nhanh nhất, giá rẻ nhất.