Rusalka is a strange love story—one that ends with a man dying in the embrace of a woman (as opposed to the classic opposite). The story’s end finds no closure, but instead acts as the birth of a fearsome Czech folktale about a water nymph who is doomed to ensnare young men. And finally, the opera contains but one ‘love aria’ which appears in the final scene, and ends in tragic death. The linear dramatic tension in this work is formidable, and even more so with Opera de Montréal’s decision to cut the characters of Gamekeeper and Kitchen boy, the opera’s only comic relief.

Kelly Kaduce as Rusalka © Yves Renaud
Kelly Kaduce as Rusalka
© Yves Renaud

Although he wrote ten operas, Dvorak is certainly not known as an operatic composer. The most striking aspect of this score is the fact that it is not overtly operatic in its language (both musically and linguistically). The vocal lines are certainly not as idiomatic for the voice as many of his Italian contemporaries, and there is an incredible symphonic treatment of the music. The opera contains four main themes, distinct in character but not necessarily akin to Wagnerian leitmotif (with the exception of Rusalka’s languorous clarinet theme). Dvorak continually develops the themes as a symphonist might—the culmination of which appears at the moment of the Prince’s death from Rusalka’s accursed kiss, during which Dvorak transforms the rustic clarinet theme into a minor-mode lamentation in the celli. Also fascinating is the watery quality of the music, as achieved by Debussyian use of harps, strings and winds.

After a foreboding orchestral prelude the curtains opened to show a rocky lakeshore adorned by dangling seaweed and enclosed by walls upon which projectors illuminated intricate digital images. These projections were lush and detailed, adding a fantastic layer of expression to the opera. Always changing, the sets became undulating waves, hazy underwater foliage, the sky at sunset, a deep forest, and the moon itself.

Rusalka’s sisters are the first characters to enter. As they played joyous games and sang youthfully, they also executed a very impressive and skilled dance sequence. Vodnik, Rusalka’s Father (Robert Pomakov) entered, dreadlocked, barefoot, patriarchal yet playful, and with a stunningly rich voice. Pomakov’s musicality stood out in this production. He found a deep, organic tone full of the mystery and tragedy of the Rusalka mythology.

Rusalka herself (Kelly Kaduce) made her appearance and begged her father to help her become human, and to experience what it means to love and have a mortal soul. Her voice is lovely—as rich and warm as a lieder singer’s, but with the projecting power necessary for Romantic opera. Her ‘Song to the Moon’ was wonderfully nuanced, each phrase delicately tapering into the next, and all the while maintained the youthful and deeply conflicted character of Rusalka.

The Prince (Khachatur Badalyan) made his enraptured entrance alongside his fellow hunters after being dazzled by the sight of a rare white doe. He debates whether or not to hunt the creature. So stunned by the sight of the animal, when he sees Rusalka in the flesh for the first time he asks her if she comes to protect the mystical beast, calling her ‘sister of the white doe.’ His voice, also containing the warmth and flexibility of a lieder singer, embodied the youthful vigor of a charismatic prince who has been completely entranced by a magical presence. His voice, at times, did not project into a hall—no doubt a fault of the less-than-desirable acoustics of the hall itself, as well as Dvorak’s rather low writing for tenor. Throughout the opera I couldn’t help but be reminded of the necessity for a better opera venue in Montréal.

The witch Jezibaba (Liliana Nikiteanu) was portrayed with a kind of Tim Burtonesque eccentricity, ragged and hermit-like in appearance, and quite nearly blind. Nikiteanu embodied all the madness, arcane knowledge and masochism present in the character with her voice, which was agile in high an low registers, and powerful in its ferocity.

The Foreign Princess (Ewa Biegas), in the ultimate role of jealousy and unrequited adoration, was really the only singer who was able to comfortably project into the hall at all times. She was truly a powerful stage presence, both vocally and dramatically.

Deep themes run through this opera’s abyssal layer of subtext—broad statements about all of mankind abound. Jezibaba warns that ‘...man is an abomination of nature, who has turned his back on Mother Earth.’ Through her doomed quest for humanity Rusalka reveals the bitterness of jealousy, loneliness, unrequited love and worst of all, mortality. The opera is truly a tragedy, though one painted on a rich musical canvas full of mysticism and ambiguity. Opera de Montréal succeeded in escorting the listener to a new and mysterious underwater realm. A fantastic performance!