Dvorak's fairy tale opera "Rusalka"was beached for nearly a hundred years after its premiere in 1901. It didn't reach American shores until 1975 and the Met until 1993.
Now it's the catch of the day. This weekend, two major American companies, the Minnesota Operaand the Houston Grand Opera, have productions running, and the Minnesota version, which opened last Saturday, shows why this intensely lyrical and liquid piece is now considered a masterpiece.
It's Dvorak, first of all, whose deep and tuneful music is being heard and appreciated by new post-modern audiences. There's "Mesiku na nebi hlubokem,"the "Song to the Moon," and the Renee Fleming effect. The Disney movie, released in 1989, didn't hurt. (I, for one, think it's the best Disney score of all.)
But most of all, it's Rusalka, the water nymph who longs to be human and loves a prince, but who delivers a kiss every bit as deadly as Tosca's. The role calls for a young, attractive soprano with a big, romantic voice, and happily for Minnesota Opera goers, that's Kelly Kaduce.
A Minnesota nativeand Minnesota Opera favorite, Kaduce is a remarkable Rusalka -- Ana Marie Martinez, who's singing the role in Houston Sunday and next week, is close but others can't hold a candle to her at this point in her career. Kaduce, who grew up in Winnebago, went to St. Olaf College and now lives in Houston, coincidentally, has a clarion, deeply colored voice and a luminous presence on stage as both water nymph and human.
She's perhaps too timid and remote in Act Two, when she's on the periphery of the prince's world, but she's purposeful and leads the way in the final scenes.
Russian-born tenor Khachatur Badalyanwas ailing on opening night and the role of the prince was covered at the last moment by A.J. Glueckert, who didn't meet Kaduce until minutes before curtain last weekend. In light of that, his performance that night was miraculous, though tentative and underpowered. Badalyan was expected to rejoin the cast and presumably added more energy and vocal power to the man-mermaid relationship.
Two performancesremain, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Ordway Center, 345 Washington Ave. in St. Paul.
Marianne Cornetti, who was a memorable Azucena in "Il trovatore" in 2008, is appropriately weird and disturbing as Jezibaba (translation: Ursula), and bass Ben Wageris impressive as Vodnik, the water gnome who rules the roost and is Rusalka's father. He's playful in the opening scene, then is all dignity and lamentation after that. Shannon Prickettis too cool and disagreeable as the Foreign Princess, who gets in the way of the prince's engagement to the voiceless former nymph. On opening night, she needed to turn down the volume a bit and warm up.
The translucently aquatic projections and lighting give the production, directed by Eric Simonson, a dreamlike quality. The lighting by Robert Wierzeland Paul Hackenmuellerand projections by Wendall Harringtonanimate Erhard Rom's scenery, whether at the sea bottom or in liminal areas. The shape-shifting projections and gossamer lighting grow cold as the pale and zombie-like Rusalka disappears into her twilight world.
The dryads (aptly named Siena Forest, Bergen Baker and Jennifer Panara) and the dancers led by choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble are also key. In Act Three, the story winds down about 15 minutes before Dvorak is ready to quit, and it's the dance, the alert direction by Eric Simonson and the luxuriously rich score, crisply navigated by conductor Michael Christie, that carry it to a safe landing.