Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Rusalka -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/9/09
Fleming, Antonenko, Blythe, Sigmundsson, Goerke / Belohlávek

That Renee Fleming may be the weakest vocal link in the current Met revival of Dvorak's most famous opera is no reason not to see it. In fact, she's not at all bad: just surrounded by a remarkably good supporting cast, and not the force she was for the show's last appearance five years ago.

Time, as they say, is an odd thing, but I'm honestly shocked to hear the Fleming magic -- which one might have thought ineradicable -- already audibly diminished. Not that it's gone: it comes into focus at times, and when listening for it one senses the old character of her singing underlying its current version, but one is no longer forcibly seized -- rather harder than one might have liked, sometimes -- by its unmistakable star character on what seemed like every high-lying climax. Perhaps we, accustomed now to listening for the special character of her voice, will have to work harder and harder for it (not without reward: one could hear a trace of the former golden tone in Pavarotti's sound through the very end) until some day the adulation becomes inexplicable to a newcomer.

Of course we are not there yet. It's too early to write an obituary on Fleming's career -- she did quite admirably in Thaïs, and the diminished success in this part may be the result of a now-less-fitting role, an off night, or the like. But she was so fit for Rusalka last time, and to be this relatively drab on even a poor night in an ill-fit part would have been unthinkable in years past. And even in Thaïs her top -- where so much of her power and appeal has been -- was difficult, an effort not just on the hit-and-miss Ds but elsewhere, in producing her characteristic luxe sensuality.

Her singing took time to congeal last time, too: somehow she's never quite made a unity of the famous Song to the Moon with which her character begins, different parts of her voice sticking out in different directions through its various turns. And in fact she later sang quite well Monday, through the truncated confrontations of Act II. But Act III offers another long solo and a great duet (well, dialog) in which she utterly triumphed in 2004, and these too -- though solidly sung and expressively phrased and acted -- lacked the sonic magic one would expect from Renee Fleming.

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It is difficult, of course, for anyone to shine these days next to Stephanie Blythe. Blythe's amazing mezzo is here simply loosed upon the score: singing with an earthy fury and zest, catching both the demoniac force and rough humor of the witch Jezibaba, she even eclipses what Dolora Zajick brought to the part last time (which was itself amazing).

Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (as the doomed Prince) was one of two singers debuting on the night. He made an excellent first impression: dark but rounded in tone; on the whole forceful and virile without crudity or excessive effort. I can't wait to see what he makes of "E lucevan le stelle" at Sunday's gala.

Both had iffy high note moments, but Christine Goerke and Kristinn Sigmundsson also did well, their full and full-bodied singing giving weight to the conflicting fire of the human (Goerke's Foreign Princess -- Rusalka's rival) and spirit (Sigmundsson's Water Gnome -- Rusalka's father) worlds. And the cast was strong even down to the bit parts, with Lindemann grads Kate Lindsey (again in a pants role) and David Won doing well as the Kitchen Boy and (offstage) Hunter, plus two notable Wood Sprites: Brenda Patterson, very pleasant in her Met debut as Sprite #2, and soubrette Kathleen Kim (who debuted a season ago as Barbarina), who as Sprite #1 was delightfully clear and winning -- maybe the most notable soprano singing of the evening.

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Even the casual observer will note this story's resemblance to... Lohengrin, with its beloved human (Elsa) who, in an all-too-human world, cannot quite keep faith. OK, OK: more will think of The Little Mermaid, and it's interesting to see how differently the story plays when the disruptive force is not the witch's grasping villainy (Jezibaba is terrifying but basically helpful and fair) but the nymph's own desire -- for the prince specifically and for humanity in general.

The movie is Rusalka's story recast into the contemporary villain-focused popular mode. But before she was Disney's mermaid, the poor half-spirit and her hunter-beloved were very much figures of the Romantic period: we have seen them before, most unforgettably as Odette and Siegfried in Swan Lake, and we see them again at Romanticism's very end -- at last married, but still dangerously mysterious to each other -- as the Empress and Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Of these it is Tchaikovsky's ballet that this Dvorak opera most resembles, with its lively strains of rhythm (which carry the piece along as the fairly static drama does not), succession of set-pieces, and character segments. Czech conductor Jiri Behlolavek makes (unsurprisingly) much of these virtues, bringing an elemental vitality to the music throughout. (Small coordination lapses, as with James Courtney's Gamekeeper, should sort themselves out as the run continues.) It is a great and easily lovable score, and though the more ballet aesthetic of the drama may not please all, I'm surprised the piece isn't done more often.

The gorgeous traditional production (only the Swamp Thing costume for the Water Gnome needs work) is another plus. I'd remind you to see it, except the entire run appears already sold out.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.