By Paul Horsley
Fairy tales may be populated largely by imaginary characters, but they exist to tell us things about ourselves. Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto for Dvořák’s Rusalka concerns a water-nymph who yearns to be human; at the same time the 1901 opera, which opens at the Lyric Opera on November 7th, teaches us to be careful what we wish for. Based on 19th-century Slavic folk tales and on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the piece takes us to darker (and more realistic) places than the Disney version could have imagined. Let’s just say that, if you want a happy ending, go rent the animated movie.
“I still view Rusalka as having all the emotions and desires of any human being,” said soprano Ellie Dehn, who makes her role debut in this production, in an email exchange. “She’s a naïve girl with big dreams, and as we all learn in our own lives, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.” Yes the Prince she falls for is a jerk, but at least he’s flesh-and-blood. “He’s an utter narcissist that turns out to be incapable of real love,” Ellie added. “That’s not to say that he wasn’t worth it to her, though! He is the symbol of this other world that she wanted so desperately to be a part of, and it makes it all the more devastating that he falls for the Princess and casts her aside, just like that. Men!”
Ellie was communicating from London, where she was appearing as the Countess in the Royal Opera House’s The Marriage of Figaro, and she said she looks forward to the contrasting vocal challenges of Dvořák’s more sumptuous score. “I’ve come to learn that, although there are stylistic differences throughout the different repertoire, you must sing with your own voice, all of the time.” (In addition to her marvelous Musetta in the Lyric’s 2014 La Bohème, the Minnesota native has in recent years sung major roles in Europe (Rome, Munich, La Scala) and at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe.)
“There are moments when we can be a bit more precious here and there, with lighter orchestration,” she said. “It’s easy to get into trouble when singers either try to squeeze into a tiny box or over-color their sound to sound bigger.” The composer has aided the singer in his vocal writing. “Rusalka’s vocalism adapts to relevant situations and swells in the score, and her dramatic arc is incredibly satisfying. Dvořák has written the role to allow for both her beauty and her strength to shine through.”
Oscar-winning and Tony- and Emmy-nominated director Eric Simonson said he thinks of Rusalka as a folk tale with little black-and-white. “When you say fairy tale, I think of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and stories like that. And although I wouldn’t say Rusalka is not a fairy tale, it’s also a folk tale, and (at least the way I think of it) a love story. There’s a lot that doesn’t sit right with our American/Western thinking. We are used to knowing who the good guys and the bad guys are.
“Both Rusalka and the Prince are deeply flawed characters who make awful mistakes, but in the end, despite their demise, we realize that these two people had what most of us never experience—true, eternal love. And they lost it. And I think that heart-felt tragedy is the point of the story. True love is out there, it’s just simply nearly impossible to get, because of the human condition.”
For Simonson the Lyric’s production is a chance to find the underlying truths in what is, essentially, an imaginary world. “In those moments that are undeniably fantastical—like the witch, the spell, the watery world—we are still able to maintain a sense of realism which is consistent with the production design. Ultimately, I want the audience to say to themselves: ‘I recognize what she is going through. I’ve been through something just like that.’ The love part, I mean, not the mermaid part.”
Rusalka was an easy choice for the Lyric’s first foray into Czech for several reasons, General Director Deborah Sandler said: Dvořák’s gorgeous score, the familiarity of the story and of the “Song of the Moon,’ and the delicious visual production by Erhard Rom and Kärin Kopischke. To help with the Czech, the company has conscripted a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s coaching staff, Miloš Repický.
But it was also fortuitous that Ellie was at just the right point in her vocal career, transitioning toward larger, more significant 19th-century heroines. “This role was a dream for quite some time,” she said, “and as my voice has matured a bit, it was the right time to try it out. I really enjoyed my time there last year in La Bohème and knew that this would be the perfect place to try out this magnificent score.”
Rusalka also stars Maxim Aksenov as the Prince, Nancy Maultsby as Ježibaba, Robert Pomakov as Vodnik and Kirsten Chambers as the Foreign Princess. Alexander Polianichko conducts the Kansas City Symphony.
The production runs from November 7 through the 15th at the Kauffman Center. Call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.