The COC’s Rusalka is a full-body immersive experience that tingles the spine
In the Canadian Opera Company’s current presentation of the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Rusalka, by Antonin Dvořák, the storytelling begins during the overture, before the curtain comes up. The dedication to telling a philosophical and darkly beautiful version of this well-known fairy tale is unwavering to the final haunting note.
Rusalki are mythical entities in Slavic folklore associated with water and wooded areas. While revered as bringers of bountiful crops in Pagan times, they became vilified as malevolent spirits during the 19th century. In Rusalka, first performed in 1901, the daughter of the water goblin king falls in love with a mortal prince. She makes a really bad deal with a witch to become mortal so she can be with him. The prince is entranced by her beauty and rashly proposes marriage, spurning his current fiancée in the process. The relationship between the water sprite and the prince is hampered by her natural coldness and her muteness, a side effect of the bad bargain with the witch. Spoiler alert: the relationship does not work out.
If these plot points sound familiar, they should. Although they are based on the same fairytale, there is really no aesthetic resemblance between Dvořák’s evocative, spine-tingling opera and the popular Disney version. Dvořák masterfully mines the rhythms and modes of Czech folk music and weaves them into one of the most lavishly gorgeous operas in the repertoire. In fact, musically the opera is very much like a moonlit woodland pool that you must get into naked and experience with your entire body rather than just your ears.
The creative team (Sir David Vicar, Director) clearly worked as a single mind to capture this raw and wild natural beauty in every aspect of the production. When the curtain came up on the larger than life birch boles of the woodland set designed by John Macfarlane I could almost smell the loamy earth and rotting leaves. The coordination of gestures and movement with Dvořák’s musical cues was superb. The orchestra under the leadership of conductor Johannes Debus was clearly relishing every note of the rich, folk-inspired harmonies, reminiscent of warm molasses for this avid listener.
The aesthetic decadence continued with costume design by Moritz Junge. The glittering, opulent gowns and finery of the polite society nobles stood in sharp contrast to the mad hair and diaphanous fabrics of the water nymphs. Costume design was also cleverly used to enhance the comic relief provided by the castle’s kitchen servants, the witch and her crow-like minions, and the water goblin. I do not know how they made them, but Štefan Kocán as Vodnik clomping around in those absurd goblin feet is one of the funniest things I have seen on the COC stage.
The passion for the incomparable beauty of this opera was palpable from the performers as well. Sondra Radvanovsky who has been captivating audiences at COC and the Met in recent seasons is divine as Rusalka. Her transformation from naïve and alluring lovesick water nymph to a wizened cursed wraith is breathtakingly chilling. Radvanovsky is truly the whole package. Her voice has a razor-sharp edge, blended with a dark, fruity tone and a strong core that produces soaring high notes and rich, throbbing low notes. Her performance of the Act I opera hit “Song to the Moon” was absolutely astounding and produced all the feels.
In my view, the Prince is the actual villain of the piece, not the witch. Pavel Černoch did a superb job of using his naturally carefree romantic tenor voice to characterize this careless cad.
Elena Manistina is loveably hilarious as spiteful witch Ježibaba, using her hearty mezzo-soprano voice to full effect for some excellent operatic character acting.
Keri Alkema gives a sassy performance as the jilted lover. I had to restrain myself from calling out “you go girl!” when she gets the righteous vengeance of the woman scorned.
In my view, the water goblin is the most sympathetic character in this story. Rusalka makes some really bad choices and the prince is an ass. The witch is a shit disturber and she is really upfront about that. The goblin is just a lonely father trying to look out for his daughter but ultimately unable to stop her from destroying her life with bad decisions. Štefan Kocán’s warm bass, well-controlled yet relaxed, is the perfect dad voice for this role and he portrays the character with a lot of humour and compassion. Given the warm and sustained applause when he took his bow, I think the audience agreed with me.
This production also features superb ballet choreography (Andrew George) and performances that imaginatively express the theme of the urbane at war with the wild through movement.
Rusalka would be a strong contender for my last supper playlist and I thoroughly enjoyed this particular production. A timeless, and savagely luminescent rendering of an unquestioned masterpiece.
- Rusalka is playing until October 26, 2019 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on October 18, 22 & 24 with additional matinees at 2 PM on October 20, and 4:30 PM on October 26.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
- Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets.
Photo of Sondra Radvanovsky by Michael Cooper