Monday, March 23, 2009

On golden pond

Marquita Lister sings the famous prayer to the moon. Production photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

No one knows that Antonín Dvořák wrote ten operas (perhaps for good reason); but everyone knows he wrote one, Rusalka, because it includes its heroine's "Song to the Moon," (or "Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém"), which ranks high on the world's Top 10 List of Most Beautiful Songs Evah. Poignant, haunting, and harmonically intriguing, "Moon" has become prime soprano catnip over the years, and when it comes to debate over its interpretation, opera queens gird for battle under the banners of their favorite divas. So any new production - particularly one with a new star - is expected to deliver something special when those familiar, mournful chords first rise from the orchestra.

But the new Boston Lyric Opera production doesn't quite deliver that special something. Soprano Marquita Lister has a lovely, but not discovery-level voice, and beyond that her performance is strangely remote and subdued; hers is a song to a slim new moon, perhaps, but not the radiant disk shining behind her.

But wait! This version has almost everything else: a truly ravishing visualization, a brilliant tenor debut, strong vocal support from a talented ensemble, and sensitive orchestral playing. Trust me, you want to see it.

Although I admit Ms. Lister's leading turn is something of a mystery. Her voice has a tinge of exotic allure in its middle register, and opens up with a silvery luster at its top; she has what it takes to pull off the role, if not outshine the moon in it. But alas, she's stiff and remote on stage, even though she's playing an infatuated water sprite - indeed, the Czech folktale variant of "The Little Mermaid." In this version, Rusalka has fallen in love with a handsome prince, and he with her (or at least with his own reflection in her pond), and the nymph makes a Faustian bargain for a chance to join him on dry land: during their wooing she will lose her voice, and her mortal soul will hang in the balance.

Bryan Hymel and and Marquita Lister face off at the climax of Rusalka.

This being not only a grand opera but based on a folktale - with all the Grimm-ness that implies - we know poor Rusalka is doomed. Unsurprisingly, the prince proves fickle, Rusalka retreats to her watery home but is scorned there, and when her faithless lover returns, feeling like pond scum (above), let's just say things don't turn out well.

Yet if the story sounds clichéd - and it is, frankly, pretty slim - the music is anything but. Dvořák conjures a consistently strange, suspended atmosphere via motifs that seem to wander, like his lonely heroine, through the late-romantic harmonic landscape. Rusalka's lunar lullaby is of course the opera's stand-out number, but the tenor gets a soaringly passionate aria of his own at the close of the first act, and there's a dance suite in the second that's memorably eerie (particularly as rendered here, to a convincing performance from Boston Ballet II).

In short, the tunes keep coming, and so do the vocal performances. Indeed, the real discovery of this production is tenor Bryan Hymel (left), a winner of several vocal competitions who's got the chops to back up his laurels. Mr. Hymel has effortless power, and a bright, brassy timbre that stretches all the way up, it seemed, to high C (which he cleanly nailed well into the third act). His was the most exciting tenor performance I've heard in Boston in years, and I don't have to look far into my crystal ball to predict a major career in his future.

Mr. Hymel was hardly working his magic alone, however. There were several memorable performances among the ensemble. Mezzo Nancy Maultsby brought real vocal fire to Ježibaba, the witch who casts the fateful spells, while John Cheek's stentorian bass rang with authority as the big fish in Rusalka's little pond. Neither, however, had developed full physicalizations for their roles (Maultsby is getting there). The combined vocal and acting honors had to go to Rochelle Bard, as Rusalka's saucy, scheming rival (although Bard sometimes vamped a bit too obviously in front of the prince; she should save it for the mute Rusalka), and especially Joanna Mongiardo, Sara Heaton, and Emily Marvosh, who brought a ripely light vocal line as well as appropriately playful characterizations to a trio of wood-sprites.

Everyone had to fight hard, however, to hold their own against the spectacular design of this production, which relies on gigantic projected images, courtesy of designer Wendall Harrington (in collaboration with lighting designer Robert Wierzel), to conjure Rusalka's underwater home. (Photos like the one above don't really do the show justice, as the images were often rippling; this video gives a more accurate impression.) The results were a stunning tour de force. Sometimes the images were a bit literal, but in general they were lyrical and enchanting, and often even transporting; faint gasps rose from the audience at key moments, such as when the white doe of the prince's hunt suddenly seemed to float before us like a ghost. New York has seen this kind of technical magic on its opera stages before (most notably in the recent Damnation of Faust at the Met, which, it's true, was more sophisticated in its sensibility), but this is a Boston first; that it's been pulled off with such bravura is quite a feather in BLO's cap.

There's also a deeper design concept here that works neatly with the metaphoric thrust of the music. When Rusalka reaches the prince's palace, she finds a desolate, strangely modern landscape, lit in gray and silver; it's a moonscape, actually - the ironic fulfillment, we realize, of her own wish, and a harbinger of her eventual alienation. Alas, the design sophistication doesn't spill over into the stage direction, by Eric Simonson. I've already noted the stiffness of the production's heroine, but several scenes felt shapeless here - I wondered, in fact, if Simonson wasn't going for some meta-theatrical correlate for Rusalka's eventual spiritual limbo. If so, the metaphor is misplaced, and unfortunately complicates a production which would otherwise be a local landmark.

[Update: After penning the above, I checked for any reviews of this production's earlier outing at Minnesota Opera. Reviews online echoed my complaints about the acting - only this time with an entirely different cast. The director remained the same; readers may draw their own conclusions.]

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