It is the mark of a true diva to be able to turn any part she undertakes into an interpretation by which all others will be compared. Renee Fleming owns just about every role she has ever sung -- Desdemona in Otello and the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier spring immediately to mind -- and none more so than Rusalka, Dvorak's lyrical operatic fable which returned to the Metropolitan stage last night.
There are few greater joys in opera than to hear Fleming sing, especially a role with which she is so closely identified. Seemingly forever youthful and certainly forever beautiful, Fleming is still the reigning diva of the opera world, and her voice, gleaming and pure as crystal, is as captivating as ever. Her opening act "Song to the Moon" is nothing short of an enchantment.
It is a joy that the Met will share with opera lovers and Fleming fans around the world on Feb. 8 when the revival of Rusalka is simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries as part of the Live in HD series.
Known principally as a symphonic and chamber-music composer, Dvorak had a lifelong love of the operatic stage and was an especially ardent admirer of the German Romanticism of Wagner. He composed some nine or 10 operas (he did one twice) over his career, but only Rusalka, which had its premiere in Prague three years before his death in 1904, has found a place in the international repertory.
The Met first presented it only in 1993 and it is that 20-year-old production that will have six more performances this season. Fleming took over the title role in a 1997 staging, and she has been the Rusalka in every performance since, with revivals coming in 2004 and 2009.
The story, written by Jaroslav Kvapil and based on a fairy tale, is about the water nymph of the title and her desire to become human so she can marry a handsome Prince she has seen wandering in the forest by the lake that is her home. Her father, the Water Gnome, sees nothing but trouble ahead, but consents to allow the sorceress Jezibaba transform her. There is a catch: once she becomes human she can no longer talk.
The imaginative Met production, by Otto Schenk, holds up very well. The curtain opens on a richly detailed sylvan setting, all green and woodsy and foggy, with a trio of Wood Sprites cavorting on the banks of the lake. When the Water Gnome, looking like a mossy Creature from the Green Lagoon, pops out of the water, they tease him to "catch us if you can." Later, as Jezibaba prepares her potion to turn Rusalka into a human, a forest full of giant frogs, bees, butterflies, mice and other critters hover around her caldron. It's all very merry, like a good fairy tale should be, until the complications set in.
The current Met revival has surrounded Fleming with a first-rate cast. The Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is splendid as the Prince, strikingly handsome and with a strong voice that is full of passion yet tender in his duets with Fleming. His phrasing of the Czech text is delicate and poetic.
John Relyea delivers a forceful performance as the Water Gnome, and Dolora Zajick, everyone's favorite witch, is excellent as Jezibaba, her booming voice riding over the pit. And the soprano Emily Magee, a native New Yorker, sings the Foreign Princess in a promising Met debut.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin led a robust reading of Dvoarak's score on operning night. Primarily a symphonic conductor, it occasionally seemed as though he were conducting a concert version, giving the always brilliant Met orchestra full fortissimo rein that sometimes overwhelmed the singers in some passages.