Seattle Center Opera House 389-7676, $31-$80 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-27, Oct. 31, and Nov. 2-3
THE ROMANTIC ERA in music, with its taste for the grandiose, occasionally lured even the greatest composers down a path they might have been better off not taking. Even though memorable tunes and fragrant harmonies came naturally, even effortlessly, to Anton???Dvor every now and then he got the bug to produce something weighty and Teutonic. Sometimes he pulled it off, but just as often he betrayed his talent with clumsy and pretentious results.
But in his 1901 opera Rusalka, Dvorplayed to his strengths: color, picturesqueness, a small-scale intimacy. The opera's fairy-tale setting allowed for these, rewarding his skill at delicate detail rather than demanding an epic sweep that might have led him to overreach. The story is not without passion and melodrama, and the seductive score is not without opulence, but overall, Dvorshows an excellent understanding of what size the story requires, with no moment any bigger or more self-important than it needs to be.
In fact, Rusalka is most effective just where it breaks the operatic mold. First, the plot: The title character is a water nymph who's fallen for a mortal, a Prince she's seen hunting near her lake. Longing to become mortal herself and win him, she appeals to the witch, Jezibaba. Among the catches in Jezibaba's proviso-laden spell (so many you really have to wonder why Rusalka even bothers) is that the nymph will lose her voice in the presence of humans and thus will never be able to verbally communicate her love to the Prince.
From the standpoint of stagecraft, this was a daring decision that paid off. The Prince sings four big duets (or duet equivalents), each one offering a twist on operatic convention. In the first, the Prince sings alone—a "love duet" for solo tenor—while Rusalka yearns to contribute but can't. How better to portray the character's tragic sacrifice than through a diva who can't sing? In the second duet, the Prince again sings to the mute Rusalka, while her romantic rival, the Princess, comments ominously from the background. In the third, the Prince and Princess sing directly to each other, a cruelly ironic "romantic" moment between hero and villainess. Then finally, for the fourth duet, Rusalka, transformed into a ghostly moon-white spirit neither dead nor alive, gets her voice back—but by then, it's too late.
At its 1990 premiere, Seattle Opera's production was heralded as one of the scenic triumphs in their history, and it still looks stunning in the revival that opened Saturday. Gnther Schneider-Siemssen's forest set surpasses even S.O.'s latest Ring set in magical beauty: a misty sylvan dreamscape dressed in two colors, a rich autumnal bronze and a vivid bluish-green the precise shade of the patina of oxidized copper, suggesting both Rusalka's liquid realm and the unfaithful Prince's decadent worldly kingdom.
Marie Plette makes a most affecting Rusalka. Her voice can soar when required, but she prefers to draw you in; she may have failed with the Prince, but she certainly enchanted the listener. In contrast, as the Princess, Melanie Helton's vocal method is all about outward projection—an equally lovely soprano voice put to very different use, making her character the epitome of stone-hearted imperiousness. Jeffrey Dowd, with his virile, velvet-lined tenor, makes a fine Prince; Peter Rose brings a warm yet portentous bass to the role of Vodnik, Rusalka's gnomish father; Joyce Castle sings the funny/scary Jezibaba with relish.
With this Rusalka, Seattle Opera bids a lyrical farewell to the Opera House as we know it (its remodeling will be unveiled in August 2003). This jewel box of a production shows off the company at its best.