SA Symphony, The Opera San
'Rusalka': Love, death and an auspicious start
February 1, 2014
Take notice: Despite its fledgling status, The Opera
San Antonio has major-league ambitions and knows how to
Friday night in the Majestic Theatre, the new company
collaborated with the San Antonio Symphony in a semi-staged
production of Antonín Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” a dark, lushly
melodic fairy tale of love and death. The production, on the
orchestra's subscription series, was part of the Dvořák
Festival. Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the symphony’s music
director, conducted with a fury and a sense of momentum that
greatly elevated the stature of the score.
Dvořák composed “Rusalka” in 1900 to a libretto (in Czech)
by Jaroslav Kvapil, whose sources were Slavic folk tales and
Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” In Russian
and Ukrainian folklore, a rusalka is a
water-dwelling spirit representing the soul of a drowned
maiden or unbaptized child and was associated with the
“unclean dead” (according to the book “Russian Folk Belief,”
by Linda J. Ivanit). The embrace of a rusalka
resulted in death. Thus, the nearest analog to a rusalka
in contemporary Western culture might be the vampire.
In the opera, the title character (soprano Joyce
El-Khoury) falls in love with a prince (tenor Brian Jagde)
and tells her father, the water goblin Vodnik (bass-baritone
Alan Held), that he wishes to become human so she can
embrace him. Despite his misgivings, he sends her to the
witch Ježibaba (mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez), who gives her
human legs but takes her voice in exchange. The prince falls
in love with the nymph, and they plan to marry, but her cold
silence troubles him, and he ditches her in favor of the
fully human passion of a foreign princess (soprano Christine
Goerke), who, having caught him, tosses him back.
Rusalka is damned by the betrayal and returns to her watery
home. The prince, realizing that Rusalka was his true love,
finds and willingly embraces her, even though he knows that
he must die as a result.
Shorn of its supernatural elements, the tale is a rather
tawdry trailer-park triangle with not enough dramatic
substance to sustain even the cut version in this
production. The cuts, including two minor comedic characters
dropped entirely, brought the evening down to a relatively
trim two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.
If the dramatic arc is too shallow, there’s no want
of musical interest. The title character’s lovely “Song to
the Moon” is widely loved, but there’s also a wonderful
dramatic duet for Rusalka and the prince at the end, a campy
incantation for Ježibaba and some very beautiful passages
for Vodnik. The influence of Wagner is hard to miss in the
through-composed structure, the use of recurring motifs, the
prominent brass, and even some specific orchestral tropes
that seem cribbed from “The Ring of Nibelungen.”
The symphony has presented opera-in-concert and semi-staged
operas before, but never with the depth of casting or the
theatrical astuteness of this performance. TOSA, whose first
full mainstage production on its own steam is still a year
off, brought quite a lot to the table.
The company’s artistic director, composer Tobias
Picker, cast the show with outstanding singing actors — and
not just solid voices, but singers with (minor
qualifications aside) the appropriate vocal characteristics
for their roles.
Ms. El-Khoury was often underpowered for the circumstances
(a large on-stage orchestra and a hall that is not
especially friendly to voices), but she brought two
essentials to the role — a luscious, full, bright instrument
and a willingness to put its beauty at risk to underscore
her character’s urgent, almost frantic pursuit of mortal
Mr. Jagde’s warm, satin-smooth core voice was lovely, but he
also showed some dramatic possibilities at full voice, when
a steely edge and a shower of bright overtones emerged. The
two aspects were not quite integrated in this performance,
but this clearly is a tenor worth watching.
No quibbles at all about Mr. Held’s stirring,
focused lyric bass-baritone, with power to spare. Ms.
Chavez, remembered for her Carmen with the now-defunct San
Antonio Opera in 2004, one again impressed with a glossy
instrument whose horn-like coloration was ideally suited to
her role. Ms. Goerke’s voice had a rich resonance, though it
has taken on a glassier edge than I recall from her
wonderful Fiordiligi at Houston Grand Opera in 2001.
Among the three Wood Sprites (Rusalka’s sisters), soprano
Julia Ebner made the strongest impression, but mezzos
Crystal Jarrel and Tynan Davis gave no cause for
complaint. Even the bit part of a hunter was
handsomely sung by tenor Eric Schmidt, director of choral
activities at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the singers’ Czech diction.
(English supertitles were projected on a screen behind the
Stage director James Robinson, borrowed from Opera
Theatre of Saint Louis, made masterful use of the very
limited playing space on the stage apron and on a platform
behind the orchestra. The fluid draping of Amanda Seymour’s
gowns for Rusalka and the Wood Sprites recalled the golden
age of Hollywood glamour. Lighting designer Chad R. Jung’s
atmospheric projections and color washes (from LED lamps
situated among the musicians in the orchestra) stood in
nicely for a set. Special notice goes to the LED moon
projection by designer Wes Lane of Austin-based LIGHTfaktor.
The orchestra was in excellent form, with silken strings and
powerful, polished playing from the brass.