Des Moines Metro Opera has mounted a stunner of a production, splendidly sung, passionately played, and inventively staged. Dare I say, definitive? Never before have I been as entertained or as moved by Dvorak’s masterpiece as on this occasion.
Sara Gartland was utter perfection in the title role, a performance on full throttle from first to last as she descended inexorably from infectious, hopeful girlish impetuosity to end up a pathetically defeated nonentity. Her singing was nothing less than radiant throughout. Ms. Gartland possesses a substantial lyric soprano of great beauty and rock solid technique that seems to know no bounds when it comes to alluring sheen, emotional connection, thrilling top notes, vibrant mid-range, floated pianissimi, and well, any and all variations thereof. Moreover, her attractive presence and committed acting were all one could wish for this complex heroine. I would wager there is no one in the world singing this role better than Sara Gartland.
Evan Leroy Johnson was every bit her equal as the conflicted Prince. From his first phrase with its gleaming, robust tone and Heldentenor promise, Mr. Johnson announced himself as a major talent. Tall, handsome, strapping, he appeared every inch the romanticized royal. His freely produced, technically secure tenor was also able to modulate its size to encompass melting phrases of tenderness and pathos. I will not soon forget his affecting death scene, which had us helpless in tears, hanging on his every utterance. But when it came to firepower, he tirelessly, decisively delivered the goods. Indeed, one particularly searing extended high note had such thrilling power, beauty, and accuracy that, completely awed, I involuntarily said the F-word! (Apologies, neighbors, but you probably thought it too.) You read it here: If young Johnson (he is 26) takes his time and takes his pick, he is destined to be the next star tenor of his generation.
Great depth of casting is taken for granted at DMMO, and the embarrassment of riches continued with the powerful Vodnik (Water Sprite) embodied by bass Zachary James. Having been mightily impressed by his Claggart last summer, I came to this performance with big expectations, and he exceeded them all. Mr. James’ vibrant, virile singing can ping off the walls with potent urgency and chilling effect. But he is equally capable of nuanced vocalizing that communicates fatherly concern and even pathos. He is a born stage animal who prowls, slides and lurks about the proceedings with consummate presence and unerring dramatic effect.
Not about to be outdone, the redoubtable Jill Grove threatens to steal every scene she is in with a nonpareil turn as the witch, Jeûibaba. Ms. Grove has a rich, robust mezzo with a pleasantly smoky timbre and she deploys it fearlessly. A consummate artist, she confidently negotiates the bridge between upper and chest register with musical skill and dramatic savvy. There is no tic or comic subtlety of this role that eludes her and she seizes every opportunity. Her wry stage business of puffing a cigarette was but one invention that informed her characterization. When it came time to get serious, the lady was equally capable of sending a shiver down your spine with her menacing, dead level pronouncements.
Laura Wilde sang so impressively as the Foreign Princess that I wished the composer had given her more stage time. Her poised, gleaming soprano seems to have taken on a bit more weight since last I heard her, and the spinto-leaning approach to this role yielded beautiful musical dividends. Her mean-girl theatrical commitment and hauteur were a perfect foil to the mute (at this point) beauty, Rusalka.
There is no way to separate out the lovely achievements of the Wood Sprites, Dorothy Gal (1), Cadie Jordan (2), and Namoi Brigell (3). Whether in solo or ensemble, the three offered limpid, pliable, steady singing of the highest order. Gregory Warren’s meaty baritone enlivened the Gamekeeper’s critical scenes. Grace Kahl, such a shining, serenely determined Laurie in the previous evening’s The Tender Land, did an about face and put her sterling soprano to good use creating a scrappy, skittish impression as the flighty Kitchen Boy. Harry Greenleaf’s warm, hearty baritone ably dispatched the Hunter’s lines with considerable beauty.
David Neely conducted an incandescent reading of this challenging score. Brooding and agitated one moment, lushly layered the next, ethereal and transcendent the following, Maestro Neely handled the work’s complexities and shifts with his usual commendable dexterity. All night long he elicited nigh unto virtuoso playing from his talented band, all the while partnering effortlessly with the singers to create a memorable piece of lyric theatre.
The physical production was lavish, mysterious, malleable, and as inventive as all get out. Since it is the first element we experience, pride of place is given to Jacob A. Climer’s sumptuous set design, which manages the feat of suggesting an underwater locale and dry land simultaneously. There are three large doorways in the wainscoted wall that is set into the proscenium.
These white walls are randomly decorated with fragments of blue drawings (think Delft pottery) and the entire floor of the stage, and everything on it, is similarly white with blue details. Armoires and chairs are askew, seeming as if they have come to rest, all akimbo on the ocean’s floor. Other furniture pieces are floating randomly overhead as if suspended en route to a similar resting place. Jeûibaba’s residence turns out to be a chest leaning proscenium right, and when the doors are opened smoke and eccentric tschotchkes are revealed. Vodnik first slithers into view onto a skewed slab down center from a concealed trapdoor.
For Act Two’s Prince’s palace, cabinets are upright, a huge banquet table is place on the apron, and practical sets of huge glass-paned double doors occupy the arches. All of this, mind you, including the drapes and the settees, has been painstakingly detailed with those indigo ink fragmented images, making the setting fairly shimmer with busy-ness. Act Three removes the doors, places a lone, isolated chair on the apron, and restores the witch’s “hut.” If anything might upstage Mr. Climer’s opulent scenery it would be Mr. Climer’s equally eye-popping costumes.
The fantasy costuming for the water creatures is whimsical, diaphanous, and richly layered. The variegated coloring and subtle sequins harmoniously lifted us out of our reality and into a magical realm. The mortals/royals costumes are just as engaging, their formality filtered through a fairy tale lens. A billowing, shiny yellow ball gown was as brash and insistent as the Foreign Princess who wore it. The household servants’ rust accents were wonderfully matched by Brittany Crinson’s ginger wigs. Ms. Crinson displayed substantial transformational hair and make-up success throughout, not least with the three Wood Sprites and the bewhiskered, tattooed Vodnik.
Nate Wheatley created an atmospheric lighting design, with judicious use of gobo patterns, diffusions, moody area lighting, shifting specials, and an excellent, disquieting final lightning effect. Mr. Wheatley also created the haunting pale moon projection, which chillingly morphed into blood red coloration in the course of Act Three. Isaac Martin Lerner contributed highly inventive choreography for the six male servants. Most memorably, the sextet spun and twisted and turned and do-si-do’d with dizzying precision as they meticulously dressed the dinner table in Act Two.
Chas Rader-Shieber has added another jewel to his directing crown. There was no moment of this remarkable, coherent staging that did not seem infused with his creative spirit. Overall, he succeeded in realizing the disturbing unease of the piece and its shifting fortunes. His blocking conveys a restlessness that often has the actors prowling the playing area in search of a place, and a reason, to light. When stillness is called for, Mr. R-S unselfconsciously draws a meaningful picture with telling groupings and positioning. His imagination informed the entire, unnerving, relentless arc of the storytelling.
One effect I will never forget is having the witch hand the about-to-be-mortal Rusalka a pair of high heel shoes. That she will forever be rooted to the land is clear in Act Two when the poor mute heroine cannot, no matter how hard she may try, get the shoes off her feat and return to the sea. As Act Three begins, Rusalka stumbles on stage, skirt hem bloodied, bloodied knife in her left hand, bloodied shoes in her right, and her feet stumps almost unrecognizably bloodied from her having tried to: Cut. Off. Her. Mortality. The wave of chills I got from that image just came back as I retold it.
This compelling Rusalka proved to be, for me, another “best ever” experience that can only be created by a team at the top of its game, in a theatre that allows us to share this intimate journey in such proximity that it seems we are virtually inhabiting this very special world ourselves.
Thank you, Des Moines Metro Opera for another unforgettable artistic triumph.
1st Wood Sprite: Dorothy Gal; 2nd Wood Sprite: Cadie Jordan; 3rd Wood Sprite: Namoi Brigell; Vodnik: Zachary James; Rusalka: Sara Gartland; Jeûibaba: Jill Grove; Hunter: Harry Greenleaf; Prince: Evan Leroy Johnson; Gamekeeper: Gregory Warren; Kitchen Boy: Grace Kahl; Foreign Princess: Laura Wilde; Dancers: Tanner Myles Huseman, Isaac Martin Lerner, Andrew Scott Pester, Owen Prum, Cooper Stanton, Devin Tokarski; Conductor: David Neely; Director: Chas Rader-Shieber; Set and Costume Design: Jacob A. Climer; Lighting Design: Nate Wheatley; Make-up and Hair Design: Brittany Crinson for Elsen Associates; Choreographer: Isaac Martin Lerner; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson
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