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.
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.
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.
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