I hate the way Minnesota Opera is marketing its current production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka. Billing it as “The Little Mermaid without the happy ending” is condescending to the audience, to the opera, and to Hans Christian Andersen’s original story. Must everything in our culture end up being Disney-fied?
Rusalka follows the plot of the Andersen fairy tale fairly closely—until the end, where it veers in the opposite direction from the Disney cartoon. A water nymph, Rusalka, having fallen in love with a mortal Prince, desires to become human. Against the advice of her father, a water gnome, she takes the potion of the Witch Jezibaba and becomes human, despite the potentially tragic consequences. When the Prince betrays her, those consequences unfurl—the Prince dies. But that fate would be too easy for Rusalka: She is also cursed to spend eternity alone.
There is much that is mythic in fairy tales. In the language of children, they reveal some of humanity’s most profound truths. Dvorak’s romantic score hints at these deeper realities, conjuring the unconscious realms that Freud was contemporaneously exploring. But director Eric Simonson didn’t seem able to hear or exploit them.
On the most basic level, Simonson seemed unwilling or incapable of creating a sense of magic onstage. This is a fatal flaw in an opera about a water nymph. The results were ultimately enervating. If I hadn’t had the professional responsibility of reviewing it, I would not have stayed through the end.
Simonson staged the supernatural figures of Rusalka’s father, the water gnome, and the witch Jezibaba like Russian peasants. There was little fantastic or otherworldly about them. Robert Pomakov lumbered about the stage, barely showing much interest in what was going on around him. More disastrously, Dorothy Byrne’s Jezibaba came off like a comic character. She wasn’t dangerous or frightening, even when she conjured the horrifying consequences of Rusalka’s request.
Given Simonson’s earthbound direction, it should not be surprising that it was Alison Bates’ devious Foreign Princess, who seduced the Prince away from Rusalka, that came off as the most fully realized character in the production.
Kelly Kaduce, who made such a splash as Rosasharon in last season’s The Grapes of Wrath, was less successful as Rusalka. She never seemed able to inhabit her part. I never felt either her great longing to become human or her great despair at the tragic results. Her "Song to the Moon" in the first act, the opera’s most famous number, was beautifully vocalized, but little more. And her plaintive aria in Act III left me unmoved.
Likewise, the Prince of Brandon Jovanovich was little more than a stock operatic tenor. At his first entrance, for example, he sang of feeling sad, but there wasn’t much sadness in his performance—though he did redeem himself somewhat with a fine death scene.
It was the work of projections designer Wendall K. Harrington and lighting designer Robert Wierzel that generated the real magic. They created the underwater realm and then, in an instant, transformed it into a forest. And the forest that was idyllic in Act I became nightmarish in Act III. There was something mythic in their succession of images, but it is unfortunate that the essence of Dvorak's opera resided only in the visuals.
Rusalka continues at the Ordway Center through April 20.