In a recent interview, where he discussed returning to the podium at The Metropolitan Opera to conduct a revival of Dvorak’s Rusalka, Philly’s own Yannick Nezet-Seguin raved about the show’s star, soprano Renee Fleming. “Anything sung by Renee Fleming becomes the most gorgeous music,” said The Philadelphia Orchestra music director. “There is just something special about Renee and Rusalka,” And he’s right. I was there at last night’s opening, and watched — ogled, even — as Ms. Fleming ascended to the top of a tree early in the first act to sing the opera’s signature aria, “Song to the Moon.”
She was dazzling, no doubt, but Mr. Nezet-Seguin is being far too humble. There’s something else “special” about this production, and that is Yannick himself. His masterful direction of Dvorak’s lush, Romantic score breathed new life into what would normally be a rather dark, dreary and downright depressing tale of ill-fated humanity.
Mr. Nezet-Seguin is no stranger to the opera, and no stranger to The Met, where he has conducted the likes of La Traviata, Faust, Don Carlo and Carmen. He's even been touted as a likely future replacement for the Met’s current, aging music director, the great James Levine (although, it’s worth noting that Mr. Levine made a triumphant return this season after an injury sidelined him for several years.) Nevertheless, Thursday’s performance at the Met made concrete why Philadelphia should be flocking to the Kimmel Center to see any program conducted by Yannick — his enthusiasm, passion and interpretation of Dvorak’s score lead to numerous ovations every time he took to the podium between acts.
Lucky for local opera fans, the Met’s award-winning “Live in HD” program, which broadcasts live Met performances across the globe, will be streaming Rusalka on Feb. 8 to a variety of Philadelphia movie theaters, including the University City Penn 6 and the United Artists Riverview Plaza Stadium Theater (with an encore performance on February 12.)
Set in an unspecified, mystical locale, Dvorak’s work is based roughly on the fairy tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. It concerns a young water nymph who falls madly in love with a human and essentially sells her soul and voice to become mortal. If the plot sounds familiar, don’t be too surprised: Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was inspired by the same tale. However, unlike the beloved Disney cartoon version, the lovers in this opera are star-crossed and (spoiler alert!) ultimately doomed.
Ms. Fleming, who will be singing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, has always considered Rusalka to be one of her signature roles, but her performance on Thursday was blessed with highs and lows. Sure, there were moments when her artistry clearly shined, such as in the aforementioned early aria and the bittersweet closing moments of the opera, but at times, when the diva dove into her lower register, the outcome was strained and uncomfortable.
Then there’s the fact that for a solid third of the plot, her character is rendered mute after giving up her voice to become human. That leaves quite a gap that is, in this production, robustly filled with supporting performances. The dashing Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who plays Rusalka’s conflicted love interest, the Prince, gave an utterly gorgeous performance. (I’ve seen him in the Met’s productions of Rigoletto and Eugene Onegin, and, believe me, he is an artistic force to be reckoned with.) The American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick is a delightfully wicked Jezibaba, the witch who (spoiler alert!) ultimately ruins the fate of Rusalka and her lover.
Still it was Yannick who shined. The crowd ultimately went wild for his robust control of the score. His impassioned conducting lead the evening’s performance to great musical heights. As a Philadelphian, I often forget how fortunate we are to have such artistry right here in our own city. It makes both lovers of opera — and of The Philadelphia Orchestra — quite excited about the upcoming performance of Salome by Strauss, conducted by Yannick and performed right here in Philly.
For more information on the “Live in HD” transmission of Rusalka, including a full list of participating theaters, go here. Rusalka continues at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City through February 15.