Review, “Rusalka”: Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019

The San Francisco Opera’s final offering of its 2018-19 season was Sir David McVicar’s production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, the story of a human Prince and the water-sprite Rusalka, each an inhabitant of a separate world. Although Rusalka and the Prince both wish to love one another, the forces that weigh against that love ultimately dooms it.

Rachel Willis-Sørensens Rusalka

Washington State soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen is a perfect choice for the water-sprite, Rusalka. She is visually stunning, and possesses a voice that soars above Dvorak’s rich orchestration with its cascades of melody.

[Below: Rusalka (Rachel Willis-Sørensen) sings to the Moon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Willis-Sørensen’s voice has an inherent beauty. She has the requisite vocal control for the famous Song to the Moon and the spinto power needed for the role’s wide-ranging demands.

Physically, the role is demanding as well. To emphasize how alien the human world is to her, the McVicar production requires Rusalka to adopt an awkward posture in which, she, voiceless, spends much of the opera’s second act. Willis-Sørensen successfully achieved McVicar’s intentions.

Brandon Jovanovich’s The Prince

Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a veteran of the McVicar production [Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014], The Prince is a role that Jovanovich sang at the Minnesota Opera early in his career. As his voice has matured to its present heldentenor weight, it has become a role for which his voice is particularly suited. Jovanovich has proven to be an effective actor in conveying all of the character’s complexities.

The role is intensely pyschological. It has an affinity with Wagner’s Tristan, particularly in the Prince’s final, Tristanesque scene, begging to be kissed by Rusalka, knowing that with the kiss his life will end. 

[Below: The Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, right) finds himself able to converse with Rusalka (Rachel Willis-Sørensen, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

During the opera’s opening prelude, a pantomime with storytelling importance is staged. It is key to McVicar’s conceptualization of the opera. The Prince is in a drunken quarrel with the Foreign Princess, who represents conformity to the expectations of the human world. 

After the Prince drinks a potion, he is able to see and interact with the supernatural world of Rusalka and the wood-nymphs.

[Below: The Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, left) expresses his love for the mute Rusalka (Rachel Willis-Sørensen); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

McVicar’s “Rusalka” reunites Jovanovich with Willis-Sørensen, both of whom starred in another McVicar production on the War Memorial Opera House stage [See Review: McVicar’s Magical, Masterful “Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2015].

Other inhabitants of the Supernatural World:

Jamie Barton’s Jezibaba

Georgia mezzo-soprano brought her rich mezzo to the magical being Jezibaba, who, through the dreams of human beings, is able to interact with their world.

[Below: Jezibaba (Jamie Barton) warns of the high risks to an immortal being of being changed into a human form; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Barton’s portrait as Jezibaba was extraordinary. Adding to the total impact of the Jezibaba character were the presence of three crow-like minions who assisted in Jezibaba’s exercise of the Dark Arts.

[Below: One of Jezibaba’s aides (a San Francisco Opera Dance Corps member) takes part in a magic spell; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I have admired Barton’s performances in a wide-ranging repertory of roles, that encompass principal roles in the operas of Wagner [Review: Francesca Zambello’s Iconic “Walküre” – San Francisco Opera, June 20, 2018], Verdi [Review: “Don Carlo” – Washington National Opera’s World Class Verdi Singing, March 14, 2018] and Bellini [Review: Meade, Barton, Thomas, Robinson Sing Beautifully in “Norma” – Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 2015,]

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Vodnik

Although water-goblins rarely get the respect from us humans that they apparently deserve, Vodnik, Rusalka’s water-goblin father, shows substantive wisdom and has lusciously melodic music to sing.

Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, whom I have admired in a long list of principal roles, performed brilliantly as Vodnik, in which he employs his deep bass voice and imposing stature to dramatic effect.

[Below: Vodnik (Kristinn Sigmundsson) is wary of his daughter’s desire to love a mortal being; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

Simone McIntosh’s, Ashley Dixon’s and Natalie Image’s Wood Nymphs

Three Adler Fellows, Canadian soprano Natalie Image, Canadian mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh and Georgia mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, were musically appealing in their portrayal of three wood-nymphs, in a rousing and rather randy staging.

[Below the wood nymphs (left and center, in white dresses, from left ot right, Simon McIntosh, Ashley Dixon and Natalie Image) interact with other supernatural beings (members of the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Other Inhabitants of the Human World:

Sarah Cambidge’s The Foreign Princess

Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge gave an admirable performance as the Foreign Princess, visually, dramatically and vocally persuasive as a woman who both conveys power and enforces conformity to conventional social behaviors.

[Below: The Foreign Princess (Sarah Cambidge) has determined that things are awry in the kingdom she is visiting; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Cambidge’s most important previous San Francisco Opera cast assignment was as one of the three Norns (along with Jamie Barton) in the Francesca Zambello production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” [See: Review: Theorin, Brenna Triumphant in Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung” – San Francisco Opera, June 24, 2018.] Her success as the Foreign Princess suggests she is ready for even larger assignments.

Laura Krumm’s Kitchen Boy, Philip Horst’s Gamekeeper and Andrew Manea’s Hunter

California mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm was the Kitchen Boy, effectively performing one of the opera’s great comprimario roles.

[Below: the Kitchen Boy (Laura Krumm, left) and the Gamekeeper (Philip Horst, right) discuss the strange marriage ceremonies taking place; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

New York bass-baritone Philip Horst was the Gamekeeper. Horst (and Jovanovich) are the only two members of the 2014 Chicago cast of McVicar’s “Rusalka” production to perform in its 2019 San Francisco revival. Michigan baritone Andrew Manea was the Hunter. New York dancer Christopher Nachtrab was the Solo Dancer.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the Musical Performance

South Korean conductor Maestra Eun Sun Kim presided over the musical performance. Her shimmering, beautifully contoured performance of the Dvorak’s melody-immersed operatic masterpiece, elicited a brilliant response from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

[Maestra Eun Sun Kim; edited image, based on a Nikolaj Lund photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

At her American debut in Houston she made a strong impression [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s “La Traviata” with Shagimuratova, Pittas, Petean – October 28, 2017].

Scottish director Ian Robertson was Chorus Director for the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

Sir David McVicar’s Production and Revival

Scottish director David McVicar is one of Great Britain’s most talented directors. Visually stunning, the production conceptualized by McVicar provides a stark contrast between the “artificial” world of human society and the “natural” world (although in “Rusalka” the latter world abounds in supernatural elements).

[Below: Rusalka (Rachel Willis-Sorensen, bottom center, sitting on floor) in Sir David McVicar’s Act II Scene II of “Rusalka”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]



His “Rusalka” is the sixth McVicar production to be mounted by the San Francisco Opera, following those of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (2006), Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (2009), Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” (2014), Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” (2015) and Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” (2016)

For “Rusalka”, Scottish designer John MacFarlane created the sets, German designer Moritz Junge, the costumes. Minnesota designer David Finn created the lighting design.

Ohio director Leah Hausman staged the revival.

Recommendation

I recommend the cast, production and musical performance enthusiastically both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera. I regard it as worth a special effort to get to San Francisco to attend one of the remaining performances.

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