Rusalka for Balletomanes

by Leigh Witchel

Austin McCormick, the leader of Company XIV, was billed to make dances for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Antonín Dvořák’s “Rusalka.” and it seemed like a perfect fit. It was, but his contribution to the production was relatively small. Yet with all the connections between the work and fin-de-siècle dances there was plenty to fascinate a ballet lover.

Rusalka is based on the same myth as Ashton’s “Ondine” and largely tracks the same story: A water nymph fell in love with a prince, sacrificing her supernatural nature to become human and be with him. The prince’s fickle nature quickly turned from crush to boredom, and tragedy followed. Yet Mary Zimmerman’s production was a modernization that was easier to pull off in opera than ballet: a tense balance between the silken music and a disturbing, sour reading that cast doubt on the natures of all the characters.

Act 1 was the fairy tale set up. After a portentous overture with hints of melancholy we met a group of wood sprites: three who sang and six who danced, all clad in a baroque fantasy of nature – sod and flowers crafted into hoop skirts and panniers. McCormick’s task was to integrate the dancers with the singers, and he did so seamlessly.

Happily Ever After seemed within reach. Rusalka yearned for humanity, saying to the witch whom she begged to transform her, “Give me a soul and my love will triumph over sorcery.” Kristine Opolais sang the title role with the full force of that conviction. There was a curtain announcement asking for our understanding as she had not felt well the past few days; it didn’t seem necessary to an untrained ear. Ironically, Rusalka’s price for humanity was to lose the ability to speak, so after a lush and show-stopping aria, she was as mute as a ballerina for most of the next act.

The opera’s conventions felt familiar to anyone conversant with ballet’s core repertory. Before he discovered Rusalka, the prince dismissed his retainers, saying he would remain alone – a moment also in both “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” That isn’t more than a device, but it’s one of the similar building blocks for pushing forward a narrative.

The fairy tale unraveled in Act 2. Zimmerman upended the expectations and focus of the love tale in a way you wouldn’t see in a mainstream production of the 19th century ballet repertory. The plot points were sang rather than shown. A dialogue between a hunter and a kitchen boy (sung in folk instead of operatic tunes for as clear a class distinction as in “Giselle”) warned that the prince was already starting to tire of Rusalka and was teasingly interested in a princess from a foreign land.

The disillusionment was in the libretto, but the direction made it even more pronounced: The Prince clenched Rusalka’s arm even when talking affectionately. When he was angry, he threw her to the ground. His words were decorous, his voice ravishing, but his intent was clear. He expected Rusalka to put out.

McCormick’s bawdy court dances fit tongue-in-groove with Zimmerman’s vision. The dances reflected how modern audiences imagine the desires behind court dancing: a thin veneer of etiquette barely concealing a core of lust. Minuets degenerated quickly to missionary position. As the Prince sang a ravishing aria, McCormick had the couples do a slow, lascivious dance. Both choreographer and director were on the same page, viewing the structure of the court, its manners and even the Prince’s beautiful singing as a façade:

Even though McCormick didn’t design the production (Daniel Ostling designed the sets, Mara Blumenfeld costumes and T.J. Gerckens lighting), he could have: his aesthetic is joyously excessive and the disturbing, eyepopping luxe was likely what he’d do with that kind of budget. In a blood red parlor, deer skulls piled up at the back or the room like a deadly version of the brambles obstructing Aurora’s castle. A group of blindfolded servants appeared massed at the parlor door to change Rusalka’s gown without ever seeing her.

We had a million clues this was going to end badly. Rusalka’s father, the Water Gnome Vodník (Eric Owens), arrived to sadly predict her unhappiness, and his presence made her recover her voice. He helped her flee after the Prince had sex with the Princess. To twist the knife, the princess told the prince vengefully that he could follow his bride to hell.

Kristine Opolais and Brandon Jovanovich in “Rusalka.” Photo © Ken Howard.

If it sounds as if we were in a similar spot as the final act of “Swan Lake,” you’re right – even sonically. The music had a similar harp opening, and the plot had another common building block: a prince seeking out the woman he betrayed to ask forgiveness. In “Swan Lake” Siegfried had to find Odette among the swans. Here, the Prince searched an abandoned stage for Rusalka, who finally revealed herself. The setting, an imaginary theater near a lake in the woods, had been half-destroyed in an offstage cataclysm.

The Prince came to a similar end as Palemon in “Ondine”: Rusalka’s kiss was fatal. His death contained some of his most beautiful singing, as he convinced himself that her kiss washed away his sins. Brandon Jovanovich kept his charisma throughout the arduous role. Yet the Prince got off easy by merely dying; after his death the Water Gnome sang that the Prince’s sacrifice was in vain and that Rusalka remained cursed for eternity.

Ballet’s repertory is all about women – yet it isn’t. It’s more about how men view and treat women – the plot pivot of “Giselle” is Albrecht. Despite her temporary muteness, Rusalka’s ability to speak gave her nuance that only the greatest ballerinas can imply without words. She confronted the Prince and asked straight out, “Why did you betray me?” (According to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s historical production, Giselle once did – but that mime has since been cut). But earlier, Rusalka berated herself for being born of cold waters, without natural passion. She got to explain her contradictions in a way that Odette or Giselle can’t.

In the best productions of “Giselle,” Albrecht’s understanding and repentance for his duplicity makes the ballet moving to this day. Zimmerman gave the prince (who never got a name) no quarter – and perhaps he never deserved it: he was a fickle, abusive and self-centered bastard with a beautiful voice and horrible morals.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Rusalka” – The Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
February 21, 2017

Cover: Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Hyesang Park in “Rusalka.” Photo © Ken Howard.

Rusalka” will have a final performance this season on March 2.

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