Antonin Dvořák’s “Rusalka” is l’Opéra de Montréal’s second production of the season. Rooted in Slavic mythology, the story may be more familiar to North Americans as the tale of “The Little Mermaid.” Of course, I mean the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and not the one popularized by Disney. And, unlike the Mickey Mouse version, this is a tragic recounting of love, loss, and what it means to be human.
Rusalka’s tale begins in sorrow as she explains to her father, ruler of the waters, that she has fallen in love with a prince in the human realm. Her inability to make herself known to the prince has left the water nymph overwhelmed by desire, and longing to leave all she has ever known to pursue him. With no other options available, Rusalka seeks out the witch Ježibaba and pleads for her help. The witch agrees to give her human form, but in exchange, Rusalka must give up the power of speech and agree that she, and the prince, will be damned for all eternity should she be unable to win his love.
Now I can’t deny that “The Little Mermaid” was an obsession of mine growing up, but I do refuse to concede that this informed my feelings about this opera. That having been said, I was disappointed in the portrayal of Ježibaba. I felt she lacked the vocal capacity to do what Ursula the sea witch had done to me so many years ago when she made my hair stand on end. Yes, I always favour the witch. However, in this case, I was left feeling that just maybe a mezzo-soprano could not bring forth the grandeur I seek in a character able to wield such dark power. Perhaps a true contralto would have filled me with that necessary sense of dread, and impart the magnitude of the situation. Or perhaps I am truly tainted by pop culture…
The role of Rusalka, on the other hand, requires a great physical presence. Unusually, this opera presents us with a main character who is literally mute for good part of the storyline. Kelly Kaduce did not fall short in manifesting the angst endured by Rusalka as her humanity leaves her cold. Not to mention the extremely satisfying moment when her powerful voice returns, and fills the hall with her torment. There is certainly a reason Kaduce merited a standing ovation at the end of the performance. Also worthy of applause was the phenomenal orchestra led by John Keenan. The music was truly beautiful, and left no void where Rusalka’s voice could not be heard.
Also of note, was the amazing set. Unlike anything I have seen at L’ODM, four screens were set up forming the back, both sides, and the ground, of the stage. Images were projected on all four, providing the sometimes shockingly realistic and diverse settings in which the story unfolds. Though, at times, the imagery was slightly absurd. For example, the projection of a white doe which prompted one patron behind me to guffaw. But all in all, it brought a touch of modernity to this dark fairy tale.
“Rusalka” is running from November 12th to November 19th.