Opera is made for fairytale. As much as opera can uniquely capture everyday life in its theatrical wake, its reputation for being extravagant makes for a vision of fantasy. Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, moving between the worlds and rooted in myth, is a shivering opera to experience with its opulent music and its fantastical plot. Houston Grand Opera’s presentation embodies a magical sound that is out of this world, even if it misses a few visual marks.

Anna Maria Martínez as Rusalka and cast © Lynn Lane
Anna Maria Martínez as Rusalka and cast
© Lynn Lane

Originally created for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, this production at Houston Grand Opera has a cast of stars. Soprano powerhouse Ana María Martínez in the title role, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as a chilling Ježibaba and baritone Richard Paul Fink as Vodník (who are all former HGO studio artists) act as a foundation for some stellar newcomers. Making their HGO debut, two singers bumped this singing up from solid to brilliant. From his entrance late in Act One, tenor Brian Jagde stole hearts and took no survivors as the rakish prince; as his Foreign Princess in Act II, soprano Maida Hundeling was simply entrancing, her luxurious voice a glorious treat. 

Dvořák’s lyric fairy-tale first opened in Prague in 1901. It tells a story that most millenials will recognize from Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid, though it’s largely taken from Fouqué’s 1811 Undine with a little influence from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. The libretto, sensationally written by Jaroslav Kvapil, poignantly tells the story of a water nymph who wants to become human. The music, lush and clearly Wagner-inspired, sets the tone.

Ana María Martínez as Rusalka, Brian Jagde as the Prince © Lynn Lane
Ana María Martínez as Rusalka, Brian Jagde as the Prince
© Lynn Lane
Conductor Harry Bicket, who also directs HGO’s concurrently running Figaro, really holds court here, apart from a handful of balance issues. From the opening, he swept the orchestra up and painted the hall with twinkling phrases and full-bodied interludes (like Wagner, Dvořák writes a some long emotional interludes for the orchestra while characters on stage reflect). With a firm, flat palm, Bicket cued the closing cymbals, which announce tragedy’s conclusion. If the orchestra hadn’t overtaken Martínez, as it did even in Rusalka’s famed Act One “Song to the Moon” aria, it would have been spotless. 

Because Rusalka is naturally unearthly, it offers incredible opportunity for set and costumes. This production, with set and costumes by Rae Smith, opted out of the abstract to stick to realism as much as it could. Cobalt, sapphire, and purples cast the marine vibe. A raised half circle acted as a platform base for all three acts. Large wooden planks stuck haphazardly out of the stage, later suspended in the air, to act as below and above the water world. Rusalka made her first entrance from above. Lowered down, the first image of her was a long, writhing tail that flipped and flopped with each thrusting effort. Later, Rusalka’s sisters would be lowered down in the same fashion, but held in the air. Silver but strange, the tails looked more like flaccid snakes than iridescent fish scales. But the second act, sandwiched between the two water scenes, was striking with bright and delightfully bizarre formal wear and smart lighting—perhaps the world above proved easier to design than the unknown depths below.

Richard Paul Fink as Vodník © Lynn Lane
Richard Paul Fink as Vodník
© Lynn Lane
As ethereally delightful as Rusalka is, it’s a bit of an odd opera in a few ways. An opera composer has to be pretty gutsy to stage a story where its lead soprano loses her voice for almost a third of the opera. Martínez, who pantomimed like crazy for the second act, looked a bit like the desperate diva that knows she’s not the center of attention anymore. But it’s also an odd opera because love doesn’t conquer all, and no women die. Instead, the prince (who, let’s be honest, kind of deserves it) has the infamous expiring aria. With his head on Martínez’s lap, Jagde sang his end so sweetly, his voice still abounding with vitality and breadth, it was hard to know we wouldn’t hear him anymore.