incident light

SA Symphony, The Opera San Antonio

'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 deliver.

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 love.

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 orchestra.)

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.

Mike Greenberg