Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poor, Pale Rusalka Beautiful Beyond Words (and music)

Opera Colorado Performed Dvořák's Rusalka Last Night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver

Additional Performances:
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm
Friday, February 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm
Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Opera Colorado took the plunge and gave the Colorado Premiere of a rarely-performed opera by Antonín Dvorák. The music was stunning, but visually Wendall K. Harrington (Projection Designer), Erhard Rom (Set Designer) and Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer) made the production breath-taking, more than just transporting us to the dark underworld of the water spirits, creating a world of passion and torture for characters and audience alike. The designers captured the sense of music visually, perfectly. For a story that mirrors Little Mermaid but with dark overtones, Rusalka paints the interaction between humans and the fairy world with Cimmerian color --images and music I'm not soon to forget.

Stefan Szkafariwsky plays the sometime humorous but devoted father of Rusalka, Vodnik. He is a water-gnome and as playful with the wood nymphs as a faun. Stefan's sonorous, strong bass voice carried through the hall translating both sides of his personality. When frolicking in the woods, there was laughter in his voice. Later, as he laments over the anguish of Rusalka, he transmits the tender love of a father for his daughter, feeling all her pain and the anxiety of his impotent position to help her.

Kelly Kaduce is stunning as Rusalka. Not only is this a difficult role sung in Czech, but for a large portion of Act II she is relegated to silence, an odd position for the lead in an opera. Kelly sets the tone of her character with her aria "Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém" (Song to the Moon) in the first act. Beautiful, haunting, longing and eventually tortured comprises the role of Rusalka. Kelly captures each of these elements creating a rich, complex character we suffer with. Much like her father Vodnik, we feel helpless for her situation only able to watch her struggle from the shadows. In the second act, Kelly translates Rusalka's frustration with not being able to speak and the desperation in not being quite as human as she'd hoped, still somehow attached to the cold underworld. Then, when she sees her father again and is finally able to sing her emotions have peaked to the point of bursting, unable to remain silent any more, she sings "Vidis je, vidis? Jsou tu zas" (See them, see? They are here again) tortured by her half-human state, unable to feel true human passion. The irony of the music is that this is one of the most passionate moments in the opera. I could go on, but suffice it to say, Kelly Kaduce may be part fairy-folk, for she captured the conflict in Rusalka beautifully.

Catherine Cook played the role of the witch, Ježibaba. At times we feel as if she is on Rusalka's side, willing to help and honestly interested in Rusalka's plight. While at other times her sinister nature and dark underworld existence shines through. Catherine transmits both of these elements to her character with stunning clarity. Even when she is singing words of hope, there is an undertone to her voice that alludes to the depth of character.

Alexander Polianichko conducted the Colorado Symphony musicians with precision. The orchestra never got in the way of the action or voices on stage, and yet took prominence when it needed to set the scene or accentuate the emotions unsung.

Other highlights were a brief solo by Adam Ulrich as a Hunter. This was his Opera Colorado Debut and I hope to see/hear more from his rich Baritone voice. The three wood sprites, Nicolle Foland, Anna Noggle and Megan Marino were a delightful trio opening with flirtations with Vodnik and recapturing their playful nature with "Mám, zlaté vlásky Mám" (I have golden hair). Their voices are ideally matched to create the playful nature of the sprites, luring us under their spell.

As beautiful as the production is, there are moments where the directorial choices of Eric Simonson don't seem to match the splendor of the rest of the production. Most notably in Act II, there is scene with dancers. Toward the end of the scene Vodnik sings of his torture, while the dancers are acting drunk stealing focus from the passion in the scene. Ok, perhaps Eric wants to show the debautchery of humanity, but he detracted from the performance of the bass Stefan Szkafariwsky. The Prince, played by Avgust Amonov, and the Foreign Princess, played by Dana Beth Miller, are supposed to be having a playful flirtation, but the scene is directed as if the Prince is a tortured idiot and the Princess is a raging B****. Add to this the wood sprite song is "I have golden hair" and only one sprite has anything even close to blonde. Vodnik comes in later to comment on these "golden haired nymphs" and as an audience we're wondering if Vodnik has lost his eye sight or if Eric simply didn't bother reading the libretto. Some of the costumes by Karin Kopischke also seemed to miss the point. Again in Act II, the Foreign Princess is dressed in a stark white dress while Rusalka is dressed in a sultry red shift and later a matching red dress. The Foreign Princess is supposed to be passionate and Rusalka is suppose to be cold, but they appeared completely opposite. Perhaps that's what she was going for; it just didn't fit with the rest of the production.

It's difficult to talk about some of the failing of this production in what is otherwise a beautiful opera, passionately performed and visually unforgettable. Opera Colorado has a good production. It is great to see them taking chances on lesser known operas, exposing Colorado to the broader world of opera and (for the most part) doing it extremely well. The performance is worth seeing and there are only three left.

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