By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Rusalka was last seen in San Francisco in 1995 with Renée Fleming, conductor Sir. Charles Mackerras, and beautiful dreamy fairytale sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Fast forward a generation, to June 16, 2019, the opening night of David McVicar’s production (first seen in Chicago in 2014), we see a ‘fairytale for adults’ with a stark environmental message – dark, ghostly sets of dead forest trees, a dam built by evil humans, butchered animal carcasses, ghoulish goblins and water sprites, heads of stags lining the ballroom wall (think Tim Burton films). The theme of man destroying nature runs through the entire production. In Act 3, the Water Goblin scolds the frolicking wood nymphs: “Stop playing around like little children, a man from outside has spoiled our water!”
The fantasy-horror concept works well, with suggestions that it’s all not just a bad dream, but very sad and tragic reality.
In the title-role, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, with a creamy rich soprano, sings powerfully and poignantly. Her rendition of the famous “Song to the Moon” combined beautiful tone with great lyrical intensity. Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince shows no sign of strain and cuts a very romantic figure – the finest tenor singing I’ve heard this week. Kristinn Sigmundsson as Water Goblin (Rusalka’s father) uses his dark, incisive bass to great effects, especially as the apparition at the end of Act 2 ballroom scene. Sarah Cambidge’s dark-hued dramatic soprano makes for a powerful Foreign Princess. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is wonderfully menacing as the witch, attended by three black crows.
Bass Philip Horst as the forester/gamekeeper, mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as his kitchen boy, and baritone Andrew Manea as the hunter provide some welcome comic relief. Natalie Image, Ashley Dixon and Simone McIntosh are the three lively wood nymphs (Image and Dixon also star as Frasquita and Mercedes, respectively, in the summer’s Carmen production.)
Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim draws warm incisive playing from the orchestra, adding to the dramatic impact and underpinning the moving final scene, when the Prince kisses Rusalka, knowing it will mean his death but give him peace.
The opera chorus and dance corps all do an admiral job of contributing to the atmosphere and humor of this dark fairytale. Dance aficionados will enjoy Andrew George’s dramatic choreography in Act 2, featuring an elegant courtship dance, followed by the dance of flower maidens spraying floral petals all around Rusalka, which then turns into a truly horrifying scene as the flower maidens are replaced by the witch’s black crows.
Four more performances of Rusalka on June 19, 22, 25 and 28.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.