Rusalka… la petite sirène

“I don’t think that an opera house is ever a place that can make you entirely happy,”
said Bernard Haitink, celebrated symphony conductor and violinist. After
attending Rusalka’s opening night at the Opéra de Montreal, I understand what Haitink meant: to
soar with an opera’s triumphs, savour its subtleties and confront its failures is to endure
romantic melancholy.
Like its enigmatic protagonist, Rusalka enchants, woos and wounds. Inspired by Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and De La Motte-Fouqué’s “Undine”, Antonìn Dvořák’s Rusalka recounts the tale of a water nymph driven by her love for a human prince to accept the curse of the sorceress Ježibaba: she must remain voiceless to mortals until she wins her beloved’s heart. Should she fail, she will languish in the solitary depths of the sea until death claims her.
Marrying Czech fairy tales to the drama of the opera, Rusalka is both tender and tragic, dramatic but also filled with whimsical wood nymphs, forest and sea spirits (represented by dancers), and romantic court couples.
The hushed anticipation at the curtain’s rise made it clear that the Wilfrid-Pelletier Concert
Hall filled that night for one name: Kelly Kaduce. Winner of the prestigious Metropolitain
Opera auditions in 1999, Kaduce is a rising star soprano best known for her masterful
interpretation of lead female roles, and her Opéra de Montreal company debut is no
The role of Rusalka requires both abandon and restraint: after delivering an exquisitely
emotional and fine rendition of the opera’s standout aria “Song to the Moon” in the first
act, Kaduce relies on physical acting to carry the mute Rusalka through the major tensions
of Act two.
Kaduce’s Rusalka is decidedly younger and more timid than Rusalka’s past (listen to Lucia Popp’s rendition for contrast), and Kaduce’s well-focused soprano work heightens the
fragility of her character. In an ethereal fade-dyed peach and beige gown by costume
designer Kärin Kopischke, fair hair matted by the sea’s waves, Kaduce is a Rusalka whose
fine aesthetic recalls the spellbinding portrait of The Lady of Shalott by Waterhouse—a
darkly fitting comparison.
Although Kaduce was the standout role, Rusalka boasts an impeccably well-cast roster of fine singers. Khachatur Badalyan’s rich and varied tenor and convincing portrayal of a man
caught between two loves—Rusalka and his intended princess—was the second person in
Rusalka’s trinity.
Robert Pomakov’s deep and powerful bass referenced the rumbling ocean as Vodnìk, ruler of the seas and Rusalka’s father, delivering the finest acting on stage. The audience’s pity
is for Rusalka, but the greatest empathy is possible for Pomakov’s Vodnìk, the regretful
and distraught father of a damned daughter.
Regal in her white caped gown and proud in her assured gestures, Ewa Biegas used her
more powerful and womanly soprano to sing the Foreign Princess as a grande dame,
captivating, if not (for love of Rusalka) likeable. Liliana Nikiteanu used her fine mezzo-
soprano to an unsettling effect as the thoroughly wicked Ježibaba. Pierre Rancourt, the
Hunter, is featured all too briefly (blame the libretto) for those who were spoiled by his
strident baritone in the Opéra de Montreal’s 2011 staging of La Bohème. Chantale Nurse,
of last season’s Rigoletto, left the audience desiring more of her soprano as Vodnìk’s
favourite Wood Sprite (1st).
Rusalka is not without minor faults: video installations conveying scenery by Wendall K. Harrington were successful but too literal in their approach, occasionally unintentionally
humourous. Decor by Erhard Rom also achieved mixed results: the grey palace’s cold
sophistication certainly contrasted the enchanted atmosphere which the underwater and
woodland scenes created, but failed to achieve the same unsettling atmosphere and
visually-interesting texture evident in Ježibaba’s bright violet, hellish lair.
Rusalka envelops the audience like the sea’s lapping waves: each well-controlled aria, exceptional voice and dramatic turn drags the listener deeper into Dvořák’s tragedy. Unlike
Italian or French, Czech does not seem to those unfamiliar with it to go after the large,
strident finishes: Rusalka invites listeners to appreciate the subtlety of the softer-sung
tragedy, clear to the ear as water is light, yet oppressive in its tragedy as the heavy depths
to which Rusalka, defeated and cursed, sinks to await death.
Rusalka plays Nov. 15, 17, and 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilfrid-Pelletier Concert Hall.

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