A lush musical score, a stellar cast of singers, imaginative set design, fine choreography — what more could an opera company ask from a production?
A full house, perhaps?
Whole rows of empty seats were nearly all that marred Friday night’s New Orleans Opera Association presentation of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.” That and the length of the opera, which at three hours (with two intermissions) was perhaps half an hour longer than the average operagoer’s attention span.
Otherwise, the performance itself more than lived up to expectations.
Making its New Orleans premiere, “Rusalka” will be repeated at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Friday evening’s performance — sung in Czech with English translations projected above the stage — brought enthusiastic applause for the cast and orchestra, who were skillfully led by conductor Robert Lyall through a score that few, if any of them, had ever played before.
The opera’s basic story roughly parallels the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid” and the much later Disney animated version. But anyone who was expecting a Disney-like happy ending had to be disappointed. No one gets married, and, in typical opera fashion, someone dies just before the final curtain.
Melissa Citro, performing the title role for the first time after understudying Renee Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera this past spring, made the most of the opportunity, singing her part to near-perfection. Her powerful soprano soared high above the orchestra to the farthest reaches of the house.
Her delivery of the Act 1 “Song to the Moon,” the opera’s signature aria, was every bit as plaintive and convincing as one could have hoped.
A.J. Glueckert, as the Prince, sang his heroic-tenor role with fine clarity and diction. His acting was convincing as well, playing a man befuddled by a beautiful, mysterious young woman with whom he falls instantly in love but who can’t verbalize similar sentiments for him.
As Vodnik, the gruff Water Gnome who warns Rusalka about her foolish desire to become human, Raymond Aceto’s growly bass, projecting a dark premonition of foreboding consequences, was just what one would expect from the role.
The sorceress Jezibaba, sung by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, is considerably less malevolent than Ursula in the Disney version, but she, too, extracts her price for transforming Rusalka into a human, and it’s the same one Ariel surrendered: her voice.
Having sung the role for Lyric Opera of Chicago this past spring, Grove brought to the stage a level of experience that showed in both her singing and acting. As one Chicago reviewer said, “She gives the witch such a playful wickedness as to make her somehow likeable.”
Soprano Kathleen Halm’s portrayal of the Foreign Princess is exactly what the libretto calls for. Expecting to be the Prince’s choice for a wife, the character is miffed to learn her prerogative is being usurped by a mute outsider. Halm’s strong singing well expressed the haughtiness with which the princess was obviously raised.
As Rusalka’s sisters, the three Wood-Sprites, Amanda McCarthy, Annie Halbert and Brindley McWhorter sang and danced their roles convincingly, reflecting well their Loyola University training under Ellen and the late Philip Frohnmayer.
The lighting and projections by Don Darnutzer conformed beautifully with the set design by director William Murray and the late G. Alan Rusnak. Projected underwater scenes segued smoothly into scenes depicting a wooded area.
Some opera purists may take umbrage at the technological advances that seem to be on a path to rendering traditionally constructed sets obsolete, but if they give the productions greater flexibility, more power to them.
Finally, the young dancers from New Orleans Ballet Theatre flitted skillfully across the stage like the little nymphs they were portraying. Give credit to choreographers Gregory Schramel and Marjorie Hardwick.
“Rusalka” is an opera definitely worth seeing and hearing — hopefully with a fuller house.