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One gorgeous fish out of water: Lyric Opera's Rusalka

Sir Andrew Davis
The Chicago Reader

By Deanna Isaacs

More than a century after it was written, Lyric Opera is presenting Chicago with a ravishing premiere of Rusalka, Antonín Dvorák's 1901 "fairy tale for adults." The rhapsodic score—performed under the baton of conductor Sir Andrew Davis—has found a perfect match in director Sir David McVicar's stunning production.

The story's a version of The Little Mermaid: a water nymph turns human in order to consummate her love with a prince (and, perhaps, to gain a soul and get to heaven). The libretto, by Jaroslav Kvapil, draws on Czech myth, in which a rusalka is a spurned woman who resorts to suicide and is doomed to spend eternity luring young men into the water to drown. This Rusalka gives up her voice to become a mortal, and then can't function in the human world. She loses the affection of the fickle Prince, and by the time he returns to her, their tragic fate—determined by the bargain she struck with a witch for her transformation—is sealed.

There's a very contemporary man-as-despoiler-of-nature theme, and plenty of comic relief (randy wood nymphs, big flappy crows, a hoot of a witch), but what gives the piece its power is Dvorák's musical embodiment of the yearning and heartbreak of a protagonist who is, literally, a fish out of water.

That, and the work of set designer John Macfarlane, who's also a painter (he has a concurrent show at Maya Polsky Gallery). Macfarlane has created one enchanting, surreal scene after another: a moonlit and magical (if already polluted) forest, a grossly scaled butcher shop of a kitchen (Sweeney Todd comes to mind), and a great Gothic castle hall studded with an alarming number of hunters' trophies. Thanks to him, to the Victorian-era costumes of Moritz Junge, the choreography of Andrew George, and lighting designer David Finn's contrast between the cool lunar light of the forest and the hellish blaze from the castle's mammoth hearths, there's not an unmemorable visual moment in the whole three-and-a-half-hour show.

McVicar puts his Rusalka, soprano Ana María Martíinez, through a performance nearly as strenuous physically as it is vocally. She sings while prone on her belly and flat on her back on a tree limb, and has to air-swim through most of the first act, as does bass-baritone Eric Owens, alternately comic and distraught as her father, the three-toed water goblin Vodnik. The entire cast—notably including tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the errant but ardent prince and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as the deliciously nasty witch—is first-rate.

Martínez and Owens have just been named Lyric's community ambassadors, so we'll be seeing more of them. But there are just five more chances to catch this wonderful production, which runs tonight through March 16.