For the first time in its 45-year history, Arizona Opera finally got around to mounting Dvorák's fairytale opera "Rusalka."
It's not that the company dragged its feet; "Rusalka," which Dvorák penned in 1899 and which had its premiere two years later, didn't catch on in the U.S. until San Diego Opera took a chance on it in 1975.
It's probably because the opera is a little hard to wrap you head around. Is it a comedy? It is a drama? And what was it about that hunter and his floppy deer?
Here are three things we took away from the performance after seeing it Saturday night at Tucson Music Hall. (It repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20.)
The staging: Wow did Arizona Opera knock this one out of the park. They placed a sheer curtain at the front of the stage and used blue lights that danced in time to the music to simulate the water. Dancers carried metal chairs over their heads and walked in slow motion to give the sense of waves and currents. The human world went on in silhouettes behind an lightly illuminated curtain at the back of the stage. The stage itself was a 3-foot high square platform taking up most of the stage and the room around it served as a beach where the nymphs hid during the Act 3 finale when the Prince pleaded for Rusalka's forgiveness. The only pitfall: The supertitles seemed at times inconsistent. They would appear and then after a couple minutes, blank as the singing continued. The opera was sung in Czech, which was a first for Arizona Opera, so the supertitles were super important to following along with the story. But several times throughout the nearly three-hour performance — there's one 30-minute intermission — the singing would continue but there wouldn't be any supertitles to back it up. It was a bit frustrating.
The music: Conductor Steven White brought out some wonderful warmth and dynamic color from the orchestra. Dvorák's score has dramatic climaxes that White balanced with nuanced drama particularly in Rusalka's Act 1 aria "Song to the Moon," sung by soprano Sara Gartland, making her Arizona Opera debut. Her range and power was stunning. She reached into the stratosphere in her upper register, then came back down to earth showcasing a vulnerable yet commanding middle range.
Other outstanding vocal performances included first-year Marion Roose Pullin Studio artist soprano Alyssa Martin, singing the pants role of the kitchen helper; baritone Joseph Lattanzi as the gamekeeper; commanding mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas as Jazibaba, the witch who gives Rusalka a potion to cross over into the human world; and soprano soprano Alexandra Loutsion, making her Arizona debut in the role of the snarky conniving foreign princess who steal Rusalka's prince. She was a powerhouse and her comic chops were impressive; we hope to see her return to Arizona Opera real soon.
The story: It's based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Little Mermaid" — a water nymph longs to find true love in the human world so she cuts a deal with a witch (Karanas as Jazibaba): She can go but she loses her power to speak. You know where this is going to go: the nymph Rusalka (Gartland) meets her prince (Danish tenor David Danholt), falls in love and he quickly loses interest. After all, she can't express her love to him. And then boy meets another girl — a foreign princess who is determined to steal the prince. Only she doesn't want him; she wants the bling-bling. Once he puts the glittering ring on her finger, she's out of there, even as he lies injured because Rusalka's father (the talented baritone Richard Paul Fink) has cast a devastating spell on him: Kissing Rusalka will be his death.
Sounds like a tragedy, right? But in the first act we see this hunter (Kevin Newell in a non-singing or speaking role) hauling around a dead deer (it was floppy stuffed animal) draped over his shoulders. The kitchen helper jumps into the arms of the gamekeeper after he hears someone coming; in the third act, the gamekeeper jumps into the kitchen helper's arms.
Should we laugh? Should we cry?
Arizona Opera did a great job staging "Rusalka." The music was wonderful from the pit and the stage. The half-dozen dancers were breathtaking. The lighting set the mood and was a prop unto itself, creating the essence of the sea. But the story misfired. It didn't pull you emotionally one way or the other, which is what we look for in opera.