Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘Rusalka’ Opens 84th Season in Grand Style

Antony Walker and Sara Gartland the Brightest Stars in a Brilliant Cast

By George B. Parous

Pittsburgh Opera opened its 84th season Saturday evening, with a truly grand performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka. The libretto, by Jaroslav Kvapil, is said to have been inspired by various Czech folklorists, and/or Hans Christian Andersen, with the latter some times given more credit, due to “The Little Mermaid” resemblance to the opera. But Rusalka is not a mermaid – she’s a two-legged “water sprite” in a lake, and she doesn’t live happily live happily ever after with her Prince. An interesting point behind the origins of the opera, is that Kvapil had his libretto completed before any composer expressed an interest. He was referred to Dvořák, who set the story to completed music between April and November, 1900. Its world premiere, in Prague, on March 31, 1901, was a tremendous success. But it was some time before the opera was heard outside of Czech-speaking countries, and Pittsburgh Opera can be proud of the mission accomplished by the company’s first production of the work.

Dvořák himself would have been impressed by what was heard and seen at the Benedum Center Saturday evening. As is almost always the case, Antony Walker and his orchestra gave a brilliant performance of the score. From the most delicate passages of harp and strings, to the thrillingly crashing crescendos, the conductor and instrumentalists were on the same page throughout. It was a truly grand reading of the music. Probably more could be said about Mr. Antony and his musicians, but the list of superlatives runs dry after listening to them two or three times, and I’ve been listening for a number of years.

Rusalka (Sara Gartland) asks for the witch Ježibaba’s (Marianne Cornetti) help

Sara Gartland was not the soprano long advertised to sing the title role, but she was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “substitute.” She gives Rusalka an interpretation that makes one think that she was born to sing the part. Ms. Gartland is gifted with a soprano voice of true beauty, and she has that gift completely at her command. A finely honed technique, seamless phrasing, the ability to float the softest pianissimo and hit the highest notes in the score – she has them all, in musical abundance. She also acts very well, and looks like a movie star. This production marks her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and we can only hope that she’ll come this way again.

The Prince (Jonathan Burton) is enamored with The Foreign Princess (Leah Hawkins)

Other newcomers in the cast were Jonathan Burton, as The Prince, and Leah Hawkins, as the Foreign Princess. Mr. Burton sings with a robust tenor, and he, too, can project his voice in any direction the score takes it. Ms. Hawkins has a large soprano voice, with silvery, bell-like tones in her singing, solid in all registers. Her haughtiness made her part a very commanding one, indeed, and she made the most of her scenes. Marianne Cornetti, by no means a newcomer, sang and acted the part of Ježibaba, the heartless witch. Her voice is in remarkably fine condition, especially in the soaring, high reaching passages of the role’s music. But she can glide down to her mezzo-soprano range with the greatest of ease, and made her part one of the highlights in an evening that was full of them.

The Wood Sprites (left to right Lydia Clinton, Julia Swan Laird, Isabella Bergamin, Jazmine Olwalia, Emily Richter, and Miranda Nichols listen to Vodník’s (Hao Jiang Tian) lament

The tuneful “Water Sprites,” Julia Swan Laird, Emily Richter and Jazmine Olwalia, were new Resident Artists making their first appearances with Pittsburgh Opera. They gave a fine example of ensemble singing, and did a hypnotically choreographed dance with a few “Sprites” borrowed from Attack Theatre. Vodnik, the Water Goblin (and Rusalka’s father), was finely sung by bass Hao Jiang Tan.

The Prince (Jonathan Burton) woos Rusalka (Sara Gartland)

From the chorus’ brief but exquisite chanting behind the scenes, to the hunters, supernumeraries on down, the stage and orchestra pit bulged with talent, and there are three more performances of the opera nobody should miss. Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Rusalka deserves full houses, for it is one of the grandest “grand opera” season openers, if ever there was one. As of the typing of this article, masks are optional. But check for any updates on the Pittsburgh Opera website, once you’re there to get tickets, a complete synopsis and more.

The Artistic Team for Rusalka –

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Original Production & Staging, Eric Simonson; Set Designer, Erhard Rom; Lighting Designer, Marcus Dilliard; Costume Designer, Kärin Kopischke; Projection Designer, Wendall K. Harrington; Projection Programmer, Paul Vershbow; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Choreography, Attack Theatre; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Haley Stamats; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight, Assistant Stage Managers, Hannah Nathan and Emily Grand

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera



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