NC Opera's Rusalka
Meymandi Concert Hall
Sunday, March 30
Before last Sunday, I would never have recommended a “semi-staged” opera performance—that is, one which sacrifices some sets, costumes and stage movement to save costs while still allowing an audience to hear the music—as a show gripping enough for a new opera fan. But the North Carolina Opera
’s stripped, richly inventive presentation of Dvorak’s 1901 Czech classic Rusalka
in Meymandi Hall changed my mind, offering proof that semi-staged opera can also be thrilling.
Much of the credit goes to Joyce El-Khoury
, the exciting young Canadian soprano imported to play the title role of the doomed water spirit. Her performance was brilliant, with gorgeous singing and perfect control during the justly famous “Hymn to the Moon” and throughout the nearly 3-hour show. El-Khoury can act, too; she created deeply intimate and emotional moments with the audience again and again.
Hearing her sing in Czech was also a rare treat, with odd consonants and sounds that added a subtly strange layer. In a recent interview with Opera Lively
, El-Khoury said her early training in Arabic and Lebanese—and then French, English and Italian—helped the sounds come naturally. The purity of her expression onstage bore that out. I hope we get to see her in another NC Opera presentation before she becomes a star too expensive for this state.
The “semi-staging” of director Crystal Manich and her lighting, costume and stage design team worked, too. Refusing to be limited by the possibilities at the front lip of the stage, Manich turned a piano lift into a shimmering lake and made full use of balconies, ladders, a backstage chorus and exits through the back of the house. She conveyed shifts of place and mood subtly with various projections and lighting schemes, and the costumes (from a performance featuring El-Khoury in San Antonio earlier this year) were stunning. The production, which general director Eric Mitchko told me was the “most staged” of NC Opera’s four semi-staged works to date, felt rich and complete, even without a full set.
As the Prince, tenor Russell Thomas was almost as impressive as El-Khoury. There’s no denying the power of his voice, which sounded particularly rich during a duet with Heidi Melton’s Foreign Princess in Act Two. He was poignant in the solo where he begs El-Khoury to kill him with her kiss in the finale, too. But when he wasn’t singing, he seemed to be simply waiting for his cue; in one intimate scene where he comforts a frightened Rusalka, it was impossible not to notice him glancing at the screens showing conductor Timothy Myers. I’m sure most opera singers check the conducting regularly (the monitors are there for a reason, of course), but the move broke the moment’s spell.
Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak was delightfully creepy as the witch Ježibaba, while the strong presence and beautifully deep baritone of Tom Fox as Rusalka’s father Vodnik served as an anchor. His indignation at humanity and sadness for Rusalka gave weight to the generally slim plot of the fairy tale tragedy. Part of the problem with the drama stems from librettist Jaroslav Kvapil’s odd decision to make the lead female role mute every time she meets the lead male, at least until the final scene. El Khoury’s acting was certainly up to the miming, but it was difficult not to wish for the duets—and in one case, a trio—that would clearly have made for more fun and interesting listening.
NC Opera rounded out the cast by featuring some fine local performers. Particularly good were the three Wood Sprites: Rachel Copleand, Kristin Schwecke and Jami Rhodes, plus Donald Hartmann as the Gamekeeper. The big local stars, however, were the musicians in the NC Opera Orchestra and conductor Timothy Myers, who once again proved that the Triangle is blessed with at least two excellent orchestras. Dvorak’s highly listenable score is dense, scintillating and very melodic, with wonderful parts for woodwind. Myers and the musicians gorgeously brought it to life. Myers is a treasure; his style of conducting brings out deeply emotional performances but is never swamped in overly schmaltzy romanticism. That’s a hard line to walk, and Myers routinely walks it well.
Lesson learned, then: NC Opera’s semi-staged productions can be just as satisfying as its fully mounted operas. That may not always be true. Its previous semi-staged performances, after all, would probably not have been a good choice for opera newbies. Billed as a “concert,” for instance, Act One of Wagner’s Die Valkyrie
was advertised with a picture that included both costumes and a set, even though it had neither costumes nor set nor stage movement.
Given the range of possibilities included in the term “semi-staged,” NC Opera would do well to include more description in its press materials about what audiences might expect from less-than-full-scale performances. I’d hate for anyone to miss a gem like Rusalka
because they were underwhelmed by the “semi-staged” descriptor.