My second opera here in Iowa at the Des Moines Metro Opera was a truly rich Rusalka offering a gorgeous production in the intimate Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola (about 25 minutes south of Des Moines) which is the mainstage home for the company. The house was virtually sold out (as it turned out to be at all four performances I attended here), and I was very surprised upon entering the intimate theater how well laid out it was. A "U" shaped house offers no more than 13 or 14 rows all steeply raised behind the one in front so that every seat has a clear view of the interesting thrust stage. The front row sits in a "U" around the thrust section with a proscenium behind the thrust. Just in front of that is a large rectangular square cut into the floor so we can see the orchestra pit one level below. Immediately, I was worried about the acoustic from the enclosed pit, but as the work began, no worries at all.
Sets and Costumes-Jacob A. Climber
Prince-Evan Leroy Johnson
Sprites:Dorothy Gal,Cadie Jordan,Naomi Brigell
Kitchen Boy-Grace Kahl
Foreign Princess-Laura Wilde
Fantasy abounded in the set which was largely made of hand painted "toile" blue on white from the floor to the three glass curtained doorways in a frame at the rear of the stage. The furniture made in the same toile method (a fascinating artistic procedure explained in the program) melted into the set's floor with chairs, chests and tables abounding. A large crystal chandelier was at the front right and had clearly fallen. Suspended above were more chairs and tables giving a real feeling that this was a topsy-turvy world or one that had suffered a major meltdown. At the rear left in front of the divider with the glass doors was a large armoire that had tilted and melted into the floor, this was to become very important as the show progressed.
The three water sprites had white flowing gowns draped to the floor in an almost Grecian mode and sported tall upright crowns made of raw tree twigs; two carried large branches and one a large moon-like orb lit from within. The latter took a seat at a large tilted melting into floor armoire midway up the stage on the right which had a chair on it as they tease.
Mr. James' Vodnik came from what appeared to be a hidden hole in the floor under one of the tables wearing a long green gauzy bottom with sparkles and appliques. He was topless and covered in tattoos on his chest and back with Emperor penguin-like feathery ear pieces that shot back from Spock-like ears; a fu Manchu moustache was as long as it could be without getting in the way. Rusalka soon entered in a similar looking gown with feathery fabric shoulders. She had on a scallop-like tiara/crown(underwater Turandot) with whitish hair that was in total disarray. As soon as Ms. Gartland opened up and reached her first climax, I knew this was going to be a memorable performance and a singer I would not soon forget. Mr. James was a perfect foil as her domineering father and filled the house with his impressive baritone as he warned her ("byeda") with his back to the audience. The design of this house often has the singers in front facing back to the rear and the conductor singing in a way that you would never think a director or conductor would want, but this house has an acoustic that bounces it back to the audience perfectly.
Rusalka's "Song to the Moon" is the one piece that everybody knows and was sung as a huge orange moon rose at the right rear as Ms. Gartland came to the front lip of the stage (there is a tv screen at the front below the stage so singers can see the conductor behind) singing right to us but then turned to the moon again proving how well the sound emanates in the house. At the climax of her call to Jezibaba, the chandelier lights flashed along with lightning and smoke came from the tilted armoire at the rear left. The doors opened and the witch emerged all in black quasi-Victorian bustled gown that was a bit frayed and worn on the edges and a birdlike black feather neckline, spectacles on the edge of her nose, gray frizzy hair and a smoking a huge cigar. Rusalka implores her to give her the secret to becoming human and in doing so reaches for the door of the armoire only to be halted by Jezibaba. Ms. Grove was ideal with her huge mezzo damning Rusalka if she fails even throwing her to the floor at one point. She opens the door taking a pair of silvery glittery pumps and dangles them in front of the nymph. As she intones her spell aria, "Churi Nuri fuk" the three sprites return with warnings for their fellow nymph, ignored by the pair as the enter the armoire for what I thought would be a major transformation.
The prince's servants enter with one putting a pair of antlers on his head to mimic the hunt. One servant has a flask and seems to keep hold of it for the entire opera (I'm not really sure what that was all about). The Prince follows in red tails, black boots, white paints, a black riding hat carrying an elaborate crossbow; one servant follows with a crown on a red velvet pillow. The prince shoots and "kills" the servant with antlers to be told by his servants that it was no doe. I have seen this opera only about four or five times, so this direction confused me a lot, but was so short it made no matter.
Rusalka emerges from the armoire wearing the silver shoes and lifts her skirt high to show the Prince that she can now walk on land. My big disappointment here was that she sported the same dress, hair and "crown" and I really wanted to see a major transformation at this point; I guess the budget didn't allow for another costume. This was my first hearing of the young tenor, Evan Leroy Johnson, who has garnered much praise as he quickly rises in the realm. His adoration aria offered up the pinging, ringing tenor notes that we all yearn for and as he almost commanded Rusalka to talk, I thought that if anyone could do that, it would be this handsome guy. Rusalka is so ashamed she tries to go back into the closet (well, we know that's not a good thing after we come out the first time) as Mr. Johnson's tenor grew and grew to match the lush huge orchestra. This was a moment to remember as the small house was filled with a monstrous musical climax as th Price carries Rusalka off as her father rises at the front of the stage with his arms out reaching for his daughter.
Act II had all the lopsided furniture removed and the large chandelier now hanging above a large table at the front with normal armoires left and right against the rear wall which now had the three glass doorways in it all formally curtained and elegant. The servants bring out more furniture and Mr. Warren enters as the hunter looking a bit disheveled in a feathered hat, ill-fitting vest, black tails and Wellington-like baggy galoshes. I should note that the servants were all dancers and wore similar costumes (but well fitted) of black tails with gold and black striped vests. The Kitchen Boy was similarly dressed with a dirty white apron and barefoot dirty feet. It has been years since Mr. Warren was at WNO as a young artists and I could not even tell Ms. Kahl the same woman who played Laurie in the Tender Land the night before, and the scena between the two was quite adorably staged and well sung. I have discovered that DMMO really works hard to cast young singers so well, and this was a treat indeed as all four operas were.
The Prince enters in black formal pants with a wide yellow stripe, heeled black shoes, a white shirt and a gorgeous smoking jacket. His staff dress him in a lavishly medaled red military jacket with epaulettes that looked like a Christmas tree and then placed his crown on. Rusalka enters with her hair done up nicely looking very sexy in a smoking jacket over a short slip showing off her long legs and silver pumps. The Prince already seems stiff and unsure of himself and how to deal with her and becomes very aggravated that she cannot communicate. The Foreign Princess walks across the rear section in a monstrous flowing bright yellow gown with huge puffy shoulders and long train (this was indeed a gown for the ages!) and then stops short and walks to the front and haughtily and snottily confronts Rusalka with her huge soprano. She sits down, looks down her nose at Rusalka and brushes her lap as if to say, "don't even breath on me!" At this point, Rusalka is so frustrated and clearly wanting to return to her family, tries to take off the silver shoes in vain.
The servants switch their aprons for black tails jackets and we are treated to an elaborately choreographed dance with the servants laying the table with crystal, china and silver from the armoires. At times this was almost funny, but there is a lot of music with no singing, so it worked for me. The ball music is introduced with a trumpet flourish and Vodnik appears in and interacts with the dancers, but they clearly do not see him. The chorus intones offstage as the dancers finish their job and Rusalka enters in a gorgeous white and gold glittery gown over a blue bottom and I have to say that her cries of woe to her father are most welcome as she has been silent for so long. The three doorways are shut and oddly have graffiti on them as Vodnik & Rusalka are at the rear; I had no clue what this meant. The Foreign Princess enters and Ms.Wilde was horribly accusatory towards her rival as the Prince asked where Rusalka was. Their duet reminded me of an earlier ever-so-dramatic performance in the role by Lauren Flanigan, so I intend to watch this soprano's rise as well!! Within seconds, the fickle Prince declares his love for her and she pushes the plates aside on the table, throwing the silverware to the floor as Rusalka watches from the rear. The Prince kneels taking the hem of the large yellow gown as Rusalka enters with her father calling from afar. Rusalksa, realizing she is lost, tears her dress off to reveal a simple white corseted petticoat and runs off as Ms. Wilde's Foreign Princess belts out to the Prince, "Follow her to Hell!!!"
Act III was the same as Act I but with only the chandelier and one chair on the floor at the front and the moon at the rear. All the glass doors are gone and sheers hang on their edges. Rusalka enters with a large curved end bloodied knife in her hand; the petticoat bottom is splattered with blood. We realize she holds the shoes in her hand and they are soaked with blood and her feet seem to be indeed gone but all bloodied; she clearly has cut the shoes off her feet in a fit of despair. Brilliant directorial take. Her hair is now undone and hanging down her back. She drops one shoe and turns the other over to allow a stream of red blood flow to the floor as she sings that she has been robbed of her youth. and begs for death. Ms. Gartlands gutsy dramatics were intense and warranted as she goes to the door of Jezibaba's "armoire." The witch emerges and offered up her aria with more guts begging for even more blood (of the Prince) in a truly great Verdian mezzo mode so memorable of Azucena, Ulrica, Eboli and Amneris.
The Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy entering seeking Jezibaba for the Prince, but Vodnik scares them off saying the Prince is responsible for what has happened to his daughter. The solo sprite aria morphs into a trio as Vodnik intones more woe ("byeda"). The Prince enters barefoot with his military jacket in hand and shirt open as the moon turns red. Rusalka wields her knife as the harp intones and she sings to the prince" why did you take me and lie?" in a beautifully solemn, yet accusatory mien as her soaring soprano declares that he will die in her arms. Not to be outdone, the prince matches the high notes begging for death. They kiss as the lights all flash and Rusalka stabs the Prince resulting in a bloody mess (the shite shirt), but he dies clearly at peace. Vodnik sings from offstage that the prince dies in vain and an almost funereal march theme intones as Rusalka moves to the rear behind the wall and doors and we see her consumed in smoke as the music swells. One last flash of light emanates as she almost disappears and the music ends.
She is condemned now to live alone in the depths as a siren.
My first mainstage opera left me truly moved and impressed from start to finish with this fab production, amazing cast and just plain brilliant evening. I have to say that DMMO really delivers!
OPERA-L on Facebook:
To UNSUBSCRIBE, send a message to [log in to unmask]
containing only the words: SIGNOFF OPERA-L
To stay subscribed but TURN OFF mail, send a message to
[log in to unmask] containing only the words: SET OPERA-L NOMAIL
Modify your settings: http://listserv.bccls.org/archives/opera-l.html