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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Great Expectations, The Frog Bride and Lullaby

Kelly Kaduce and Marianne Cornetti
Photo by Dan Norman
Minnesota Opera is currently offering Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka in a production that was completely sold out even before the first performance. Dvorak is best known for his lush, romantic symphonic compositions, such as his beloved Ninth ("New World") Symphony. He is not typically thought of as an opera composer, though he wrote the score for sixteen operas in his lifetime. Of those, only Rusalka is performed with any frequency outside Dvorak's Czech homeland, more than the other fifteen combined. I admit to having no knowledge of those other fifteen, but can certainly proclaim that Dvorak's score for Rusalka is a thing of beauty: lush, evocative, and deserving a place in the repertoire of great operas. It is played-through, constant music that swell with emotion. Best known within the score is the intoxicating "Song to the Moon" ("Mesícku na nebi hlubokém"), sung by Rusalka as she exhorts the full moon to tell the Prince of her love for him.

A rusalka is a water nymph in Slavic mythology, usually inhabiting a lake or river. The libretto for Rusalka was written by the Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil, drawn from folklore. The 19th century German novel "Undine" and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" are sprung from the same folkloric roots. In Kvapil's variation of the tale, Rusalka is a particular water nymph who has fallen in love with a human, a dashing Prince who, on hunting outings, frequents her lake. She tells her water gnome father Vodnik that her life is miserable and only living among the humans with her beloved Prince can bring her happiness. Vodnik warns her that such feelings are folly, but nonetheless suggests that the witch Ježibaba can help her. Indeed, Ježibaba can provide a potion to make Rusalka's wish come true, but in exchange, Rusalka must give up her voice. Further, if she fails to secure the Prince's love, she will be forever cursed. Rusalka drinks the potion, and on his next visit to the lake the Prince sees and immediately falls in love with her.

The Prince takes Rusalka to his palace, intending her to be his bride, but her inability to speak proves a barrier. He begins to find her cold and dispassionate; she is increasingly frustrated with her inability to explain and express her love to him, as well as his insistence. At a palace ball, a Foreign Princess seeks and gets the Prince's attention. Rusalka feels betrayed as she sees the Prince slip away and she returns to the lake, even knowing that her life now will be cursed. She seeks remedy from Ježibaba, but when the witch tells her that to be free of the curse she must kill the Prince, Rusalka recoils. In spite of the deep wounds the Prince has inflicted on her affections, she cannot take his life. However, the Prince returns to the lake, begging Rusalka's forgiveness, for the Foreign Princess has rebuffed his affection as he had rebuffed Rusalka's. It is too late, however, for now any touch between them will kill the Prince. Despairing of a life without her, he insists they kiss, even knowing that it will end his life.

Clearly, Kvapil's conception of Rusalka is much darker than "The Little Mermaid." There are several points at which Rusalka's story makes little sense. "The Little Mermaid"'s sea witch covets the mermaid's beautiful voice, and takes it as her own—she profits from the bargain. In Rusalka, no such trade of a voice for life-among-the-humans is made, so why must the nymph forfeit her voice? Moreover, the Prince does not appear to be a particularly noble or virtuous man. Rusalka's unquenchable love for him seems shallow, based only on his image, distorted in her view through the water. Likewise, the Prince's return and pleading of desperate need for her, even to the point of death, feels manufactured, lacking heart. And why does Vodnik refer Rusalka to seek out help from Ježibaba in spite of his grave concerns for the likely grief it will bring to his daughter?

Of course, the story is a fairy tale, and audiences ought not to expect realism. Still, there should be a kind of logic, some inevitability about the outcome that makes sense based on what has come before, and what the characters have revealed of themselves. It is hard to find that logic in Rusalka.

The current production has three things that lift it up to the status of "cultural event." First is Dvorak's beautiful score. Of course, this asset applies to any production of Rusalka, but as those do not come around terribly often, it is worth the effort to hear it in live performance when you can. The Minnesota Opera Orchestra, under Michael Christie's baton, is in wonderful form.

Second is Kelly Kaduce's radiant performance as Rusalka. Kaduce's soaring soprano embraces every note with great sensitivity. Her acting skills are on the same high level, breathing reality into Rusalka's torrent of feelings. As for the rest of the cast, Ben Wager, as Vodnik, sings with great power and draws out the mischief in this aging hedonist as he pursues three dryads who playfully tease him, and Marianne Cornetti is delightful as the sea witch Ježibaba. Cornetti's mezzo-soprano is well suited to the role, which she plays more as a jaded cynic who has seen all manner of evil in her time, than as a sinister villain. At the opening night performance I attended, A.J. Glueckert went on as the Prince, filling in for Khachatur Badalyan. Glueckert sang his part expressively, and effectively conveyed the character's caddishness. Mr. Badalyan is set to play the role for the remaining performances.

The third thing that lifts this Rusalka to impressive heights is the physical production. The settings for the first and third acts, the lake and surrounding woods, is wondrously imagined, with a crevice zigzagged across the stage to represent submersion in the watery realm, an abundance of plants suggesting a fertile existence, and rough-hewn stone walls indicating both the beauty and danger yielded by nature. Projections create a range of effects that beautifully meld with the set. The set for act two, in the Prince's palace, is the opposite, with cold geometric shapes and smooth concrete walls suggesting a calculated and barren existence. The costumes are similarly well tailored to distinguish the two settings. Rusalka's dress at her water home shimmers and seems to virtually float around her. By contrast, she seems constrained and diminished in the more tailored dress she is given to wear at the Palace. The super-puffy white dress worn by the Foreign Princess is an abomination, lacking any hint of kindness, which is perfect for this harsh character.

There are several extended dances in the course of the opera, beautifully choreographed by Heidi Spesard-Noble. The nymphs perform lovely ballets that depict the sensuous easiness of their watery lives, while the dance at the Prince's ball shows both the formal and comedic elements of "civilized" life.

Stage director Eric Simonson has done a smashing job of mounting Rusalka, with its tenderly wrought score, top flight performances, and a thrilling physical production. If the entirety of the opera as a literary piece has flaws, the production now at the Ordway makes them secondary to the glories on stage.

Rusalka plays through January 31, 2016, a production of Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. All performances are sold out. For more information, visit

Music: Antonin Dvorak; Libretto: Jaroslav Kvapil, after Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué; Stage Director: Eric Simonson; Conductor: Michael Christie; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Set Design: Erhard Rom; Costume Design: Kärin Kopischke; Projection Design: Wendall K. Harrington; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel, Paul Hackenmueller; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Assistant Conductor: Jonathan Brandani: Repetiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek; Czech Diction Coach: Milan Mader

Cast: Khachatur Badalyan (The Prince), Bergan Baker (Second Dryad), Marianne Cornetti (Ježibaba), Sienna Forest (First Dryad), Kelly Kaduce (Rusalka), Jennifer Panara (Third Dryad), Shannon Prickett (The Foreign Princess), Ben Wager (Vodnik), David Walton (A Hunter).

Dance Ensemble: Erin Drummond, Betsy Gaasedelen, Kevin Iverson, Lauri Kraft, James Kunz, Jennifer Mack, Tony Vierling, Joey Weaver.

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