As produced by Minnesota Opera to
conclude its current season, the opera is a delight for both eye and ear. And itís a unique
work as well. Premiered in Pragueís National Theater in 1901, story and score are Romanticism
in fullest flower. And, setting it apart from German operas of that era, is a gentle
undercurrent of Slavic melancholy that makes its tragic content meltingly bittersweet.
Although Rosenkavalier was then still a decade away, Rusalka has all the sensuality of Richard
Over a century after its premiere, however, Rusalka remains peripheral to the established
repertory. Indeed, the opera came late to stages outside its home community. Although Mahler,
then head of the Vienna Opera, expressed interest in the score, Rusalka was introduced to
Austria by a Czech company only in1910. In Germany it was first performed in Stuttgart in
1924, and it did not come to England until 1959, when it was staged by Sadlerís Wells. It
arrived at the Met in 1993.
Language, of course, was part of the problem. Until Jan·?ek became popular, no one sang
Czech, and Dvo?·kís refined feeling for the relation of words and music demands that Rusalka
be done in the original language. (Elders recall the distant day when in this country
Mussorgskyís Boris was sung in ó of all things ó Italian.) Itís also of interest that
Jaroslav Kvapil took his completed libretto to three other composers who turned it down before
he approached Dvo?·k. (One of them was the elder composerís student and son-in-law Josef Suk.)
All this, of course, is now water under the bridges of the Moldau, but it does leave one
doubly grateful for the superb job that MO has done with this new production, seen in St.
Paulís handsome Ordway Center on April 20 in the last of five performances. Dvo?·k obviously
knew his Wagner well. Aside from the famous ìSong to the Moonî Rusalka is largely
through-composed, lush in Leitmotivs, and rich in Wagnerian harmonies. The three Water
Spirits, clearly younger sisters of the Rheinmaidens, tease gnome Vodnik much as the Wagnerian
trio does evil Alberich. Beyond that influence, however, Rusalka is an autumnal evocation of
Bohemiaís woods and forests colored further by a disciplined Weltschmerz that adds to the
emotional enchantment of the score.
MO artistic director Dale Johnson ó true to form ó went all out to make this production, to
be shared with Boston Lyric Opera, both moving and memorable. Erhard Rom and K‰rin Kopischke ó
responsible, respectively, for sets and costumes ó solved the problem of action supposedly
under water through sophisticated projections by Wendall K. Harrington. The production
profited further from sensitive lighting by Robert Wierzel.
The stage, rich in earth-bound colors in the outer acts, had the muted realism of late
Romantic painting, while the second act played in the minimalist palace of the Prince.
Animated projections added to the mesmerizing force of the music. As the water nymph smitten
love for a mortal, rising American soprano Kelly Kaduce was a waif-like Rusalka, vulnerable
despite her determination to follow her heart. Although a role debut, it was with the ìSong to
the Moonî that Kaduce once won the Metropolitan Opera competition.
In an interview during rehearsals Kaduce praised Rusalka for its long vocal lines, and she
sustained them magnificently in performance. She spoke also of the contrast between the many
references in the libretto to her being cold and without passion and the very passionate music
that Dvo?·k wrote for the title figure of the opera. ìAnd there is in my mind,î said Kaduce,
ìan immense difference between burning physical lust for another person and truly
unconditional love. ìThat is the love at the heart of Rusalka with its heightened sense of
ìHandsomeî is an understatement when applied to lean and lanky Brandon Jovanovich, who makes
a true fairy tale figure of the Prince. The Montana native is blessed with a mellow tenor
voice of unusual resonance. (Jovanovich sings Pinkerton in San Francisco next season.)
Chistin-Marie Hill was ó despite her witchcraft ó a strong and sympathetic Jeûibaba. One felt
her heart go out to Rusalka as the walls closed in upon her.
Rules of the nether world are, however, absolute and not subject to exceptions. Robert
Pomakov sang gnome Vodnik with the immense voice of a seasoned Wagnerian, while Alison Bates
brought fury to the other woman, the femme fatale who bewitches the Prince and takes him from
Librettist Kvapil assembled his story of the girl who, having fallen in love with the prince,
wants life on earth, from the Romantic short story Undine by Friedrich de la Motte FouquÈe and
Andersenís ìLittle Mermaid.î Indeed, MO billed Rusalka as ìthe Little Mermaid, but not with a
Matthew Janczewski choreographed an ensemble of dancers from local ARENA Dances with a
masterís hand, making the group an integral part of the story. The Polonaise of Act Two was of
breathtaking beauty, and he designed suggestions of underwater movement far more successfully
than those encountered in most performances of Wagnerës ìRheingold.î
Robert Wood extracted magnificent playing from the MO orchestra, while Eric Simonson
demonstrated both understanding of ó and affection ó for what Dvo?·k achieved a century ago.
A bonus of the late April weekend in the Twin Cities was the staging of Ricky Ian Gordonís
Orpheus and Euridice in Minneapolisí beautifully restored Plantages Theater.
Although the work, only an hour in length, qualifies as a song cycle with words and music both
by Gorden, it is wiser to place it in the larger ó if vague ó category of music theater.
Libretto for re-telling of one of the worldís greatest love stories was written while Gordon
watched his then-partner die of AIDS. He wrote the text in a single nocturnal outburst of
creativity; the score for soprano, piano and clarinet followed. Originally produced and
presented by Lincoln Center for the Performing arts as part of the American Songbook and New
Vision series, the work was premiered at Rose Theater in 2006.
Musicians for the Minneapolis performance were soprano Norah Long, pianist Mindy Eschedor and
clarinetist Pat OíKeefe. A co-production of the Minnesota Dance Theater and Nautilus
Music-Theater eight dancers were choreographed by Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner.
Long, with a full-bodied voice with of special color and grit, offered a gripping account of
Gordonís text. And ó cleverly ó she acted as a member of the dance ensemble, distinguished
from her colleagues only by a flower on her simple dress. Rather than telling the story in any
literal way the dancers reflected on and reacted music and text in large sweeping motions. The
first half of the work celebrated the exuberance of great love. Only with death did the
dancers turn to the plot as Euridice died in the arms of Orpheus.
Especially effective was the shadow play of the dancers as they moved across the Styx behind
diaphanous screens. In this poignant staging the work, choreographed originally by Doug Verone
for his New York troupe, was a further triumph for Gordon, who has found a home away from home
in the Twin Cities.
Grapes of Wrath was successfully premiered by Minnesota Opera in February 2008. It
was then on stage at Utah Opera; further performances are scheduled by Pittsburgh Opera, Opera
Pacific, Anchorage Opera and the University of Indiana.
Some speak of Gordon as ìthe new Sondheim.î It is perhaps more valid to celebrate him as the
first Ricky Ian Gordon. Orpheus and Euridice was recorded on a Records disc by the
original cast: soprano Elizabeth Futral, pianist Melvin Chen and clarinetist Todd Palmer. In
an expanded version that included a string quartet Orpheus was staged by Long Beach Opera in
the cityës Plaza Olympic Pool.