It is standard procedure for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to sound “fine”, sometimes even “excellent”. But it is rare for the orchestra to sound so exciting and expressive that the wordless instrumentalists tell the story just as effectively as the vocalists. However, when Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted Thursday night’s season première of Otto Schenk’s enchanting production of Rusalka, this was exactly what happened. The orchestra conveyed the characters’ emotions so accurately that the libretto, running line by line in Met titles across the back of the seat in front of me, felt nearly superfluous.
From the charged, subtle opening, Mr Nézet-Séguin kept the orchestra sounding more lively and cohesive than I’ve heard at the Met for some time. The forceful playing perfectly matched the fairy tale, whose plot concerns a water nymph and her desire to become human and win the Prince’s love. The musicians roved energetically through Dvořák’s score, escalating throughout the prelude to a brash intensity, which gave me chills before the curtain had even risen. The symphonic music churned beneath the story, from the majestic brass to the flutes as ethereal as moonlight glancing off the lake that serves as backdrop for Rusalka’s tale. Like the water rippling behind the nymphs and wood sprites, the orchestra flowed from one scene to the next with vitality and vigor.
The drawback to the wonderful conducting was that it occasionally overpowered the wonderful singing. Renée Fleming (who will soon add the Super Bowl to her C.V.) was luminous in the title role, which is somewhat of a specialty for her. Starting in 1997, she has sung the role of Rusalka in four incarnations of this production. And while her voice has thinned out a bit over the years, her enthusiasm has not. Despite having sung the familiar Czech syllables so many times, she infused them with such passion that none of her phrases felt routine. While perched in a tree in Act I, it was difficult to hear her over the swelling strings, at least from my seat. But by Act III, she was sufficiently warmed up, and her solo at the beginning of this act was one of the strongest passages of the evening.
Another reason – besides the spirited orchestra – that Ms Fleming and the other vocalists may have sounded muffled was the overcrowded stage. The sets, designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, were beautiful, even if sometimes the singers’ phrases got lost in them. The first and third acts took place in a grove by the lake, and the elaborate visuals truly transformed the stage. A haze of green and blue served as backdrop for the trees and the “lake” shimmering below – which was surprisingly realistic as it sloshed back and forth and enveloped various characters. Behind the moss and foliage, a smudge of a moon provided some illumination for the otherwise fairly dark set. At times the moon was obscured, and at others the entire stage was lit up with lightning, but for the most part Gil Wechsler’s lighting design was gloomy and effective. Sylvia Strahammer’s costumes were suitably flowy and airy – the perfect assortment of pale blues and greens to complement the backdrop of the nymphs and sprites. At the end of Act I, a flurry of children dressed as frogs and bugs hopped around as the orchestra crescendoed and Ježibaba cast her spell to turn Rusalka into a human.
The second act took place outside the Prince’s castle, where the characters were illuminated not by the moon, but by chandeliers in the windows. In place of the diaphanous water, there was a sturdy stairwell descending from the facade, and instead of soft seafoam hues, the singers representing human beings were dressed in deep red. The choreography, by Carmen De Lavallade, was very pretty, but visually and musically this act was not as exciting as what was to come in the final act. As Ms Fleming and Mr Beczala reached the pinnacle of the opera, Mr Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra to the tragic yet somehow triumphant closing cymbal crashes. Although I typically don’t sympathize with water nymphs, Rusalka’s story – and her music – will remain with me for quite some time.