CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF 6/5/08
Antonín Dvorák: Rusalka. (Camilla Nylund, Rusalka; Piotr Beczala, The Prince; Alan Held, The Water-Goblin; Birgit Remmert, Jezibaba; Emily Magee, The Foreign Princess; Christopher Feigum, Gamekeeper, Huntsman; Eva Liebau, Turnspit; Anna Prohaska, Stefanie Atanasov, Hannah Esther Minutillo, Wood Nymphs)
In centuries past, just about this time of year, the residents of Russia's Ryazan Province would seal a rag doll in a small coffin which was then covered with flowers. Young girls dressed as priests accompanied the coffin in a mock-solemn procession to the local river. There they said their farewells to the doll, tied stones to the coffin, and chucked the lot in the water.
It was one of a diverse set of Eastern European rituals connected with what was called Rusal'naia Week. These festivals were at once a celebration of spring and an attempt to banish (or, as in the case of Ryazan, bury) the rusalka—a water-based spirit who was at once beautiful and dangerous. So the creature proves in Antonín Dvorák's Rusalka—an opera that mixes Slavic mythology with a goodly dollop of Hans Christian Andersen.
The Cleveland Orchestra offers Dvorák's opera as this year's season finale. And it's a performance you'll not want to miss. Thursday evening's Rusalka featured both astute conducting by Franz Welser-Möst and a generally satisfying cast, right down to the opera's minor roles. The only disappointment was mezzo-soprano Birgit Remmert, whose characterization of the witch Jezibaba felt like a work in progress. Tenor Piotr Beczala was dramatically convincing, if somewhat overwrought, as the Prince with whom Rusalka falls in love. The young soprano Anna Prohaska, making her United States debut, was absolutely enchanting as one of the three Wood Nymphs. Alan Held was a robust-voiced Water Goblin, though his anger over Rusalka's desire to be human appeared more academic than visceral.
But if Held seemed a little bit inauthentic, it was in part a result of soprano Camilla Nylund's gripping portrayal of the opera's title character. Nylund emphasizes Rusalka's reason rather than her romanticism. Her Rusalka is forceful, even stubborn, but never capricious. Rusalka's decisions, if motivated by emotion, are essentially strategic in nature. She wants to experience human love, and so she finds a way to become human. There's nothing wrong with her reasoning—it's her experience and knowledge that fail her. It's a situation that will be familiar to anyone who's raised a teenager: who's been faced with a barrage of unimpeachably logical arguments only to respond, "That's all very well and good except for one thing—the world's just not like that!"
John Freeman's program notes suggest that Dvorák's Rusalka is, from one perspective, a warning against cross-class or cross-cultural relationships. Nylund's superb performance points to a different reading: Rusalka as a coming-of-age story. In the course of the opera, the ill-fated nymph learns some things we all discover as we grow up: that the adult world can be a cold and unfriendly place, that there's no going back from knowledge to ignorance, and that the human heart harbors unclean spirits that, unlike a flower-covered rag doll, can't simply be buried in the nearest river.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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