Some fairytales last forever. Others fade. That, alas, is the case with Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Met.
Although this wondrous depiction of a little mermaid’s love and loss in an enchanted forest had its premiere in Prague back in 1901, it reached New York’s Lincoln Center only in 1993. The same production, directed by Otto Schenk and designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, had delighted Vienna six years earlier.
No one accuses these seasoned professionals of operatic mayhem. They respect the composer and librettist. They decorate the scene with hopefully poetic realism. In the past it was easy to be charmed by sets bathed in moon-glow (lighting by Gil Wechsler), by trees littered with lovely leaves, by a glittery lake and lavish castle. It was easy, too, to be charmed by Gabriela Beňačková and, later, Renée Fleming as the semi-aquatic protagonist, not to mention Dolora Zajick as the sardonic sorceress Jezibaba.
What seemed vital then, unfortunately, seems flaccid now. Faithfully overseen by Laurie Feldman, the old action-scheme invokes tired ritual. Most European theatres treat Rusalka these days to modernist reinterpretation. Covent Garden, preceded by Salzburg, has come up with an inventive alternative staged by Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler. The Met looks backwards, lazily.
Inspired singing still might have validated the laziness. It was in short supply here.
Fleming, who has specialised in this challenge since 1997, looks lovely in her flowing robes, acts with studied flair, phrases knowingly and strikes effective poses. Her soprano has turned a bit dry, however, with radiance hindered by stress. Zajick grumbles earnestly, but her witty witchery is now muted. Piotr Beczała almost makes the fickle Prince sympathetic, and sings with striking valour. Like many a soprano before her, Emily Magee finds the Foreign Princess an ungrateful strain. John Relyea exudes basso authority as the Water Gnome, and the faux-Rhinemaidens – Disella Làrusdóttir, Renée Tatum and Maya Lahyani – chirp and prance with neatly forced grace.
In the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séguin somehow manages to define the sensitivity and urgency so scarce on the stage.