Fleming returns to “Rusalka” with touching portrayal and vocal unease

Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 1:46 pm
Renée Fleming in Dvořák's "Rusalka" at the Metropolitan Opera.  Photo: Ken Howard

Renée Fleming in Dvořák’s “Rusalka” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Ken Howard

Returning to a touchstone role is a tricky thing—a star singer can generate tremendous buzz by revisiting an old standby, but with that excitement come high expectations. Dvořák’s Rusalka didn’t make it to the Met until 1993; to say it’s now part of the company’s core rep would be a stretch, but Renée Fleming’s portrayal of the title character has become a company fixture in its own right.

It should be no surprise that Fleming has little trouble inhabiting the role by now. She was entirely compelling in her arc, setting off as a doting naïf who gives up her immortality for the love of a human, and winding up as a dreary shadow of herself, wizened and weighed down by her lover’s scorn.

But for all her charisma, there’s no getting around the fact that this is not the voice we heard in 1997, 2004, or 2009. At this stage in her career, Renée Fleming has her good nights and her off nights, and Thursday’s opener was a disappointment. She was amply sympathetic as the titular water-nymph, but as bright-eyed as she was in Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon,” she could not bring a bright voice to match, sounding cautious in her upper register; when she tried to reach for power up high, it often came out shrill. Oddly for someone as familiar with this role and this text as Fleming is, the vowels in her middle register sounded downright weird, and not just in the way that Czech vowels sound foreign to an English speaker. They all seemed to be trapped in the back of her mouth, a problem that plagued her throughout the night and robbed her of considerable volume.

Rusalka spends most of the second act mute, but as she regained her voice towards the end of it, Fleming seemed constantly to be fighting her way towards the apron. This helped her somewhat, and she was occasionally able to float one of those gorgeous, seemingly endless pianissimos that remind us what a treasure she has been for this company in the last two-plus decades. She fared best in the final act, singing with otherworldly calm and bringing some exquisite phrasing to her pleading sadness.

Otto Schenk’s 1996 staging of the fairy-tale is endearing but problematic. Relentlessly by-the-book, it captures all the woodland charm of Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto and produces two gorgeous, evocative, atmospheric sets. At the same time, it is inflexible and unimaginative in its realization of magical effects, often blundering into campy territory, as when the Water Gnome is forced to duck awkwardly under the rim of the center-stage pond every time he exits. Jezibaba’s incantation late in the first act can be an intensely dark—or at least spooky—moment, here serving as fodder for coos of delight at the troupe of youngsters dressed as fairies, adorably but half-heartedly flapping their wings.

Dolora Zajick endured the silliness with poise. Playing the doppelgänger to one of her trademark roles—Trovatore‘s Azucena—she made the witch Jezibaba so much more than a creepy plot device. She was a fearsome presence, both vocally and physically, commanding instant attention every time she stomped out of her hovel, and coupled chilling top notes with a smoldering, earthy bottom.

Piotr Beczala, Thursday’s prince, did not have his best voice, but managed to get by without it. He tended to push, sounding raspy in his upper register, but when he backed off he achieved a cool, soothing tone. As ever, his outbursts of fiery, full-throated passion rang to every corner of the house, even if they weren’t quite as smooth as usual.

As the Water Gnome, bass-baritone John Relyea tinted his singing at the very top of the score with a bit of humor, which he understandably banished after Rusalka’s decision to become mortal. Thereafter it was all rich, grumbling anguish as he lamented his daughter’s choice and her unravelling fate. His is not a voice that booms, exactly, but for the most part he had no trouble being heard on Thursday.

Emily Magee, making her house debut, was appropriately haughty as the Foreign Princess, unleashing an armor-piercing tone in her upper register. Vladimir Chmelo and the ever-enchanting Julie Boulianne were a delightful comic duo as the Gamekeeper and his nephew, and Dísella Làrusdóttir stood out among the wood sprites, singing with smoky allure and seeming to stop time for a moment with a spectacular, extended pianissimo.

With its echoes of both bicentennial boys, Wagner and Verdi, Dvořák’s score is a tremendous vehicle for an ensemble like the Met Orchestra, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the musicians in an intense and sumptuous performance. A conductor of singular passion, he produces adventurous readings, but the rewards are usually substantial. So it was on Thursday, as his grandly sculpted, richly charactered direction more than made up for a smattering of ensemble lapses, plumbing every depth of Dvořák’s richly layered writing. He was fabulously attentive to the needs of his singers, and brought out ferocity and tenderness both from all sections of the orchestra.

Rusalka runs through February 15. metopera.org

2 Responses to “Fleming returns to “Rusalka” with touching portrayal and vocal unease”

  1. Posted Feb 10, 2014 at 2:01 am by John Carpenter

    Critics are a curious species. A food critic can tell you why the dinner you had at an insanely successful restaurant with a waiting list of two months (and which you thoroughly enjoyed) was really quite unsatisfactory.

    Similarly, an art critic can tell you why Norman Rockwell was a man of little talent, even though his paintings have been enjoyed by millions.

    And a music critic can tell you that despite the testimony of your own eyes and ears as you are listen to thunderous explause when Renee Fleming took her curtain call Thursday, she really didn’t merit the ovation.

    Critics, I suppose, were who Richard Pryor really had in mind when he quipped, “Who are you really going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

  2. Posted Feb 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm by Paul

    What Pryor had in mind was borrowing (without attribution) a line from the Marx Brothers’ film “Duck Soup” and making it his own most famous quip.

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