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TWOJA MUZA (April/May) 2014/English




                                                                                                                                   by Charles Kellis

         Fairy tales can be fanciful and full of spontaneous excitement for young children, but this "Rusalka" also poses a weighty question by the Water Gnome --a subliminal expression-- observing that Life on earth is deceitful and often tortuous and painful.

       Could being alive be more happily experienced, completely surrounded, submersed into the comforting embrace of the caressing waters of the pond? No worries. No intrigues.. No disappointments. No problems. But alas, also no love!

      Would it really have been "better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all"? That was the choice of lovely Rusalka, the mermaid who had already experienced the novelty of feeling the Prince's human body all around her, enveloping the waves of the flowing water. Despite dire warnings by her father, Gnome, offering her advice, and also having been duly alerted and warned of the fateful conditions (even death) by Jezibaba, the witch, her mind was already made up. She was enticed by the imagined fantasy and decided to feel what it would be like to actually become human. Thus the story unfolds.

         Rusalka summons the assistance of Jezibaba in making her debut into the human mold, from  mermaid into flesh and blood --- a fairy tale metamorphosis from fish to gorgeous irresistible blonde. A few more Harry Potter developments and (abracadabra)  the spell is cast. The prince appears and is immediately stunned into a fatal attraction that seals his fate forever. The deal was: Rusalka, as a human, was to remain "mute" and above all, her love could not be betrayed. The prince, however, is not able to contain his vulnerable masculine wandering eye and the appearance of a foreign princess becomes the fateful instrument, unravelling Rusalka's dream of "living happily ever after" as a human. Despite his later remorse and spellbound expressions of love, the damage becomes part of the prophesy. The Prince, regardless of the warning that a kiss would mean his death, was obsessed by carnal desire and intrigue cast by the mysterious spell. He was hopelessly in love with the enigmatic, beautiful Rusalka and dies in her arms. Rusalka, sadly returns, minus the earlier freedom of movement having been magically transformed back to her original form, but also to become???. Fortunately the music and the singing made up for what this fairy tale may have left to be desired. The sincere efforts by the lead singers carried the whole show into a believable episode of tragedy with unfulfilled love by the gravitational force of destiny.

          The conductor, Yannick Nezet-Sequin led a wonderful prelude, aptly bringing out all the drippings of the water, the leaping of the fish, the burping of the frogs and the smooth debut of the moon, It was a fine introduction for the action to come by a refined conductor, who in the first act hardly gave the singers a chance to be heard. His impassioned vision was musically Impressive with the orchestra beautifully responding to his every gesture and nuance. There was only one problem. The problem that confronts every conductor when soloists are involved. Balance. No matter how carried away you might become with the movement and excitement of the music, the soloists must still be heard.

       The remarkable Rene Fleming initially made her fame based on her wonderful abilities to spin melting pianissimo phrases embellishing into effortless soaring crescendos. A sensitive conductor's duty is to make the singer shine. At best the orchestra becomes an accompanist for a solo aria or at least a willing collaborator in the drama. Nezet-Sequin did not adequately fulfill the mission in the first act. The orchestra played wonderfully but ---Too Loud!! Particularly in the segments sung by Rusalka. Her "Mesisku na nebi hlubokem", the most beautiful "Aria to the Moon"  in the first act seemed to be challenging the listener to guess at some of the notes she was singing. (fortunately, I happened to know them). There were other problems, however, with Fleming's mannerisms that seemed to be deliberate deviations from the normal musical continuity. She was sliding around, ostensibly attempting to make an expressive statement, but the "Song to the Moon" is like the bible of a Lyric Soprano.

It is almost a sacrilege to rob it of its simple, glorious legato progression. Can you ever forgive a violinist the deviations of pitch and lack of integrity regarding the note values? There you have it!

        Regardless, however, of the overpowering orchestra ---the placement of microphones strategically designed for TV transmissions--- when broadcast world wide, could well result in projecting quite another story. The slight of hand of technology conceivably altering the acoustical legitimacy of the performance.

        Piotr Beczala is keeping up his well established reputation of being a star tenor of the Metropolitan Opera as well as throughout the international opera world. This performance as the Prince wisely displayed his refined development from the easiness and lovely tone quality in the first act, moving steadily into the more aloof portrayal of a careless lover as he seemingly rejected Rusalka in the second act ---progressing into the impassioned vocal and emotional fervor of the last act where his voice took on an unusually wonderful flavor as the lover about to lose his life over his carnal, spellbound earthly desires.

       The sets were appropriately dark at the beginning. The centerpiece of the lake dominated every Scene and every act. I thought the tree from which Rusalka initially arose, looked familiar. Could it have been recycled from the second act duel scene of Eugene Onegin? Although, It seemed a little awkward for a mermaid to appear in a tree, I guess the limited space for the lake (pond) would have made it difficult for her and her father to both make their appearance together in such a small water hole.

        John Relyea, as the Knome, rose out of the depths of the lake, bringing the depths of his bass Baritone into clear focus. It's basically a powerful role that requires a lot of stamina and no matter how loud the orchestra, he cut right through, communicating the sorrow for his daughter, having been subjected to the cruel, heartless world of Humans. He described them as sneaky, bad characters with no sense of loyalty and berated their animalistic cravings of lust for power. Well, hmmm   ----was he right??

            As for the other cast members, the veteran Dolora Zajick showed exciting, powerful high notes and hobbled effectively with her cane in and out of her cave.

The Princess, Emily McGee, although her portrayal was dramatically sound, might have been thinking about Turandot. Her voice turned cold as ice, seemingly stuck within a steely, mono-chromatic vocal production.

         The inn keeper, portrayed by Vladimir Chmelo and the kitchen boy, sung by the mezzo, Julie Boulianne were both good in their respective roles. Both sang well although in the first act, I could hardly hear the Mezzo ---again, probably due to the loud orchestra.  Vladimir was appropriately sonorous and managed his job of trying to elucidate a rote explanation of the feelings and emotions of the major characters, but the continuity of the plot was somewhat diminished by resorting to narrating the proceedings by the inn Keeper and his kitchen boy. Granted it did bring a little relief from the rather tragic unfolding of this solemn fairy tale, but I found it an inadequate and even uninteresting way of telling the story. The real characters themselves could have  displayed their confusion and intrigue without the interpolation of those two characters who I felt to be superfluous. I would have even preferred a Greek chorus, collectively proclaiming the back-stage gossip in unison or announcing the impending doom. At least it would have been more in keeping with the fairy tale. Let's have some Greek Tragedy!

            To be fair to Rene Fleming, there were moments of splendid Bb's where she magically reintroduced her trade mark pianissimo. Although her performance was not exactly up to her great diva reputation  ---despite the insensitivity of the orchestra, and despite her initial shaky interpretation of "song to the moon"--- she was still able to rightfully display her acknowledged artistry and managed to look, act and sing her way through a lovely, well organized Rusalka. This is the same Rene Fleming that I heard in the 1980's at the Juilliard School, when as a member of the voice faculty, I had the pleasure of being one of the jurors awarding her Masters Degree.