Rusalka_HeaderResonance Works gave the first of two performances of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka last night, and a fair-sized audience heard the work, or most of it, for the first time in Pittsburgh, well over a century after its premiere. Clever stage designs and lighting effects overcame the limitations of the Charity Randall Theatre as best they could, but a little imagination was needed to fully appreciate an opera which, while musically majestic, is composed of a libretto that’s a bit weak in a couple of spots and allows for an anti-climax or two. The tale of the immortal water nymph touched by the desire for human love is, as Resonance Works founder and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner recently put it, “basically the story of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as most of us know it, without the Disneyfication.” Considering a cast of singers new to their roles and singing in a difficult language, and the stamina required of the instrumentalists, it was much more than a surprisingly satisfying presentation. Facebook users can access an album of photographs of the production too extensive to include here.

As the conductor of the opera, Sensi Sellner displayed keen insight into the music that tells the tale of human and supernatural worlds on a multi-layered collision course of emotions. The orchestration flows continuously through the three acts of Rusalka, and the onstage instrumentalists – only slightly fewer in numbers than the composer had in mind – played consistently well under her unobtrusive baton, with a minor slip of two in spots that were easily overlooked. An appropriate sense of balance in the dynamics of the score was brought forth, with Dvořák’s use of motifs glistening for the better part of three hours.

Vodnik & Nymphs

Vodnik & Nymphs

There was a great deal of vocal talent on the stage as well, and one of the stronger points of the libretto is that the characters come and go with a frequency that makes the listener anticipate and look forward to seeing and hearing more of them. In the title role, soprano Rachele Schmiege sang with a ringing, powerful voice of clarion tones. She was at her best in the full-throttle passages, but she is quite capable of bringing out the more tender, bewildered and heart-broken aspects of the character as well. The famous “Song to the Moon” she approached a bit cautiously, as might be expected in a role debut, but in this Dvořák must take some of the responsibility in that he penned the sumptuous aria too close to the beginning of the opera. In action, she brought out the transitions of the characterization well, and as a whole made quite an impression on the audience. [the_ad id=”6914″]

Her husband, tenor Stefan Barner, sang the role of the Prince. It was his first appearance on any Pittsburgh stage, and he, too, created an excellent impression as the not especially gallant, somewhat fickle nobleman, but his character flaws are easily forgiven in that Rusalka cannot explain her aloofness to a human. His is a lyric tenor of considerable brilliance, and he sang the vocally taxing part almost effortlessly through to the end. Soprano Natalie Polito, as the Foreign Princess who toys briefly with the Prince’s emotions before damning him to his fate with Rusalka, burst onto the scene in the second act. Poured into a sheath of jet, crimson and gold, she dazzled the eye and delivered the role’s passages with resoundingly solid and effective tones.

Rusalka Song to the Moon

Rusalka Song to the Moon

As the Three Wood Nymphs, Rebecca Shorstein, Erin Schmura and Zanna Fredland capered about the proceedings in a fashion quite fitting of mythical sprites, and in ensemble and solo passages sang with lovely voices. Bass-baritone Michael Scarcelle, as Vodnnik, presented a striking appearance and sang the passages that weren’t a bit low for his range with a voice of much warmth and color. Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master Joel Goodloe did triple duty in the role of the Hunter.

Benjamin Robinson, the talented lyric tenor familiar to local audiences, provided comic relief as the Gamekeeper, and sang his two brief scenes with his accustomed skill, delivering the almost baritonal music to surprisingly good effect and with the greatest of ease. He was ably partnered by soprano Joanna Latini as his nephew, the Kitchen Boy, an engagingly comic actress with a strong and colorful voice. A large ensemble of singers behind the scenes occasionally chanted observations quite effectively.

Rualka and Prince at the end

Rualka and Prince at the end

Laurel Semerdjian (Ježibaba) was outstanding in her truly nightmarish conception of the witch. A wizard of a makeup designer transformed her into a harrowing sight; wild-eyed and disheveled, garbed in layers of rags, she crouched and slithered about the stage, acting the part with animalistic movements and facial expressions that made her a very believable denizen of some formidably deep, dark netherworld. Her voice is perfectly suited to the demands of the music, with ringing top tones eclipsed only by cavernous, rock-solid lows. She injected a trace of wickedly sly humor into her brief scene with the Gamekeeper and his nephew in the third act, and her spitefully hearty laughter at Rusalka’s plight was a demonic thrill.

Only one more performance of this operatic rarity remains – Sunday, May 13. In all probability, it will be many years before it’s heard again, and as the company delivers the goods quite effectively, the last opportunity of seeing and hearing it is highly recommended. Tickets are available at the door (the red ones of the Stephen Foster Memorial which face Forbes Avenue) or online at Resonance Works.

The Production Team of Rusalka

Conductor & Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director & Supertitles, Andrew Nienaber; Production Manager & Technical Director, Brennan Sellner; Lighting Designer, Kate Devlin Matz; Scenic Designer, Susan Perry; Costume Designer, Liz Rishel; Costume Design Assistant, Brigid Borka; Stage Manager, Emily Duffin; Assistant Stage Managers, Shane Smay & Cassandra Canavan; Assistant Conductor & Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Paint Charge & Set Dresser, Kensey Coleman; Assistant Lighting Designers, Jessie Smith & Maddie Barber; Rehearsal Accompanists, Uliana Kozhevnikova & Rob Frankenberry; Orchestra Manager, Ryan Leonard.

Photography by Alisa Innocenti

Categories: Archived Reviews

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