A New Rusalka in Chicago

Sir Andrew Davis conducted these
performances in which Ana MarÌa MartÌnez portrayed the water-nymph Rusalka,
Brandon Jovanovich the Prince, and Eric Owens performed the role of VodnÌk,
the water-goblin and father of Rusalka. Additional significant contributions
were made by Jill Grove as Jeûibaba the witch, Ekaterina Gubanova as the
Foreign Princess, Daniela Mack as the Kitchen Boy, and Philip Hirst as the
Gamekeeper. The three wood-nymphs were performed by Lauren Snouffer, J’nai
Bridges, and Cynthia Hanna, and the hunter was Anthony Clark Evans. Sir Andrew
Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Before the curtain rises on Act One I in this production a brief pantomime
is conducted during the orchestral introduction. The moon is clearly prominent
during the preamble, a man and woman both in formal attire gaze intently at a
suspended painting. The man tumbles out of a chair after having consumed a
beverage during what was a presumed social event. At the start of the action
the forest is depicted in semi-realistic branches with coloration shading
between grey and dullish blues. The three wood-nymphs call out to VodnÌk as
they tease him yet they elude his grasp. [“Hou, hou, hou, hastrm·nek nad
vodu!” (“Hou, hou, hou! The Lord of the waters is climbing out of the
deep!”)]. Mr. Owens, who is made up for his role with exaggerated hands and
feet, participates believably in this game of seduction. Once the nymphs
retreat, Rusalka appears and begs the indulgent ear and heart of her father.
Ms. MaftÌnez commands admirable vocal projection from the start. When she
reveals her desire to VodnÌk, [“?lov?kem byt a v zl·tem slunci ûÌti!”
(“I want to become a woman and live beneath the golden sun!”)], MartÌnez
describes her longing with a high forte pitch of remarkable purity.
MartÌnez uses her practiced range in describing the wish to join those humans
who have souls [“ûe majÌ duöi, kterÈ nem·me”] by contrasting low
pitches with opposing high notes to express the love she senses in those very
souls [“A pina l·sky!”] VodnÌk reacts with despair when he hears
Rusalka’s pleas; here Owens’s appropriate mix of declamatory and lyrical
phrasing shows concern for his daughter. At the same time, he communicates a
clear disapproval of her need to communicate with the young prince who visits
the lake regularly to bathe. Upon his suggestion that she consult the
forest-witch,` Rusalka turns for consolation to nature and sings her celebrated
song to the moon. MartÌnez delivered an achingly touching performance as she
lay on her bck propped on one of the tree-branches. With imploring tones she
expressed her appeal to the moon to stop and tell her the location of her
beloved. [“M?sÌ?ku, post?j chvÌli, ?ekni mi, kde je m?j mil˝!”
(“Moon, stay but a moment and tell me where my beloved may be found!”)]. At
this point both MartÌnez and the orchestra lingered with telling
rubato in their encouragement to slow the celestial bodies. Her
whispering piano on the request to communicate with the prince swelled
into full voice as MartÌnez proclaimed that she awaits him at the accustomed
locale in the wood. Despite her urgent appeals that it might linger, the moon
recedes leaving Rusalka alone to cry out to Jeûibaba. In the latter role Jill
Grove excelled at portraying the divided nature that Rusalka addressed in
flattering appeals, that she was “of both worlds,” the mortal and the
magical. In response to Rusalka’s request for a potion to grant her human
status, Jeûibaba demands both compensation and an explanation. When she
perceives Rusalka’s motives, “to love and be loved,” Ms. Grove’s vocal
intensity gave excited warnings of the risks to be taken by the water-nymph.
She elaborated that Rusalka’s lover would also suffer under a curse of
retribution, if the emotional bond should fail to continue. As the incantation
proceeded Grove engaged in a physically dramatic and daring scale of
recitations to produenthe desired magical effect. She reminds Rusalka further
that she will henceforth be mute in exchange for a soul.

With the admonitions of Rusalka’s father echoing in the distance, the
Hunter as first enters followed by the Prince, who is overcome by inexplicable
weakness in the vicinity of the water. The Prince orders the Hunter to return
to the castle and allow him alone to sort out the “strange magic of the
forest overwhelming my soul” [“divn?jöÌ ?·ry v duöi m·m dom?
vrat’te se, chci b˝ti s·m!”]. When Mr. Jovanovich as the Prince sees
Rusalka for the first time in human form, he begins to understand the water’s
powers. The Prince asks, “Vidino divan, … jsi-li ty ?lov?k nebo
poh·dka?” [“wondrous apparition, … are you real?”]; at the same time
Jovanovich released sumptuous high, soft pitches expressing his irrepressible
attraction to Rusalka. The final scene of this act enhances the growing love
between the protagonists. Since she is unable to speak, the Prince hopes that
her kisses will reveal the secret of her condition. After Rusalka gives him the
desired sign of her love, Jovanovich declared with anguished joy that he
realized Rusalka is not mortal [“VÌm, ûe jsi kouzlo, kterÈ mine” (“I
know that you are no more than a vision”)] Despite the voices of her father
and sisters calling out to Rusalka, the pair runs off to indulge their love out
of the forest.

In Act Two the fleeting happiness of Rusalka and the Prince seems troubled
both in their own emotional relations and in the eyes of others. After a brief
orchestral introduction the curtain rises on a kitchen scene populated by the
domestics of the castle. The kitchen-boy stuffs a turkey energetically as the
other staff prepares for a festive evening in the palace with expected guests.
In the role of the kitchen-boy Daniela Mack gives a distressing account of the
Prince’s acquaintance with Rusalka and the effect of the relationship on his
demeanor. Ms. Mack truly inhabits the role as she senses fear and predicts
instability for the Prince’s future. In the scene immediately following the
Prince questions Rusalka on her hesitancy despite having lived in his presence
for the past week. Jovanovich’s legato and impassioned top notes
expressed the potential still of his growing love for Rusalka, to which she
cannot of course similarly respond. The entrance of the Foreign Princess interrupts such developments and functions as a wedge between the pair. The
Prince orders Rusalka to dress for the evening’s ball just as the Foreign
Princess takes command of her host’s attention. Ms. Gubanova delivers her
part with measured hauteur and leaves no doubt that she will destroy
any love between the Prince and Rusalka if she cannot herself win over the
Prince’s heart. She pronounces the line “m·m dvornost jeho, vy vöak srdce
m·tez’ [“I have his courtesy although you still have his heart”] with
noticeable and very effective vibrato, as she exits on the arm of the Prince.

In the second part of Act Two movement and vocal expression enhance the
dramatic excitement. While the ball commences inside the palace, the
“ancestral chains” linking Rusalka to the water kingdom reassert their draw
[“ve jhu jsi spjat· odv?kÈm”]. In Lyric Opera’s clever staging the
interior and inhabitants of the festively lit palace are visible through a
window. In the darkness outside VodnÌk emerges from his watery realm and
laments the unhappiness of his daughter. Owens proclaims with dramatic top
notes that Rusalka will be “condemned and drained of life” [“ProkletÌ
ûivl? jsi propadla!”] At this point Rusalka leaves the ball and, once again
able to speak, begs her father for help in her current distress. MartÌnez used
this solo vocal part to delineate her character’s emotional imprisonment:
finding it impossible to win over the Prince she is “neither fully spirit nor
woman” [“ûenou ni vÌlou nemohu b˝t”]. In the final scene of the act
two pairs are caught up in confrontation: after the Prince and Foreign Princess
leave the ball, he swears his growing ardor; Rusalka and VodnÌk remain at the
lake’s edge, nez pallid arms, the Prince is cursed by VodnÌk [“ObjetÌ
jejÌmu neujdeö” (“You will never escape the arms of Rusalka”)]; as if
to seal this prediction, Gubanova’s character rejects the Prince while
condemning him to the eternal depths with an emotionally powerful dramatic
final note as the stage goes black.

Act Three of this production returns to the forest as in the first dramatic
scene. In something of a mirror to her famous song to the moon in Act One,
Rusalka now sings a lament (“Neciteln· vodnÌ moci’ in which she speaks of
cruel nature and her unfulfilled wish to die. In her aria MartÌnez applied
diminuendo most effectively, and she placed decoration at particularly
wistful phrases. Ms. Grove as Jeûibaba now comments on the fate of the
water-nymph, reminding her of the previous warning given before Rusalka fled
with the Prince. Grove released impressive low pitches forte in
condemning the man who abandoned Rusalka. Jeûibaba insists that the Prince
must die despite Rusalka’s resistance. A comparable message is delivered by
VodnÌk to the Gamekeeper and Kitchen-Boy when they wander into the forest to
find help for their master. As the last one to appear searching for his
Rusalka, Jovanovich begins his part with dramatic top notes accompanied here by
a sumptuous brass section. When lower pitches signal his appeal for Rusalka’s
presence, the water-nymph appears. In their final duet MartÌnez’s voice
trembles with dramatic intensity in her warning “that she can only bring
death.” The Prince’s relentless demands lead to Rusalka’s kiss and, as
predicted, his death. Only thus, as expressed poignantly by Jovanovich can he
find peace. Since she is banished from communion with her family, Rusalka must
disappear at the close of the drama. Chicago is truly fortunate to have
experienced such an exceptional ensemble and sensitive orchestral support from
the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=Ana MarÌa MartÌnez [Photo by Tom Specht]
product_title=A New Rusalka in Chicago
product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino
product_id=Above: Ana MarÌa MartÌnez [Photo by Tom Specht]