Boston Lyric Opera recently gave the city its long overdue first staging of Antonín Dvorák’s 1901 operatic masterpiece Rusalka at the Shubert Theater. Seen March 27 – the fourth of six shows – the production had to vie in one critic’s mind with the very recent, generally splendid Met revival of Otto Schenk’s fairytale staging under Jíri Belohlavek. On its own (perforce more modest) terms, BLO’s show, staged by Eric Simonson, succeeded handsomely, with skilled conductor Ari Pelto facing at least solid casting across the board, and Wendall K. Harrington’s memorable projections of nature photographs doing much of the illustrative work. Erhard Rom’s set yielded no visible water in Act Two, so the Water Gnome appeared as if in a dream to Rusalka, and at act’s end a Frau Ohne Schatten-style cleft divided the stage. Kärin Kopischke did well by costumes except for two highly unflattering red frocks for Marquita Lister’s heroine in Act Two. Simonson leaned heavily on Robert Wierzel’s fine lighting. For once, having singers enact a mime show during the Overture did no harm: we saw Rusalka and the Prince – who cannot initially see this Water Nymph – fall into mutual fascination. One major lapse: Simonson and Pelto cut the below-stairs observers, the Kitchen Spit and the Gamekeeper. This eliminated needed contextualization of Rusalka’s status at the castle and deprived Jezibaba of a major defining Act Three scene.
Lister made Rusalka a likable if dutiful presence; happily, her best singing coincided with the testing final scene. John Cheek’s Water Gnome, visually evoking a frisky Willie Nelson, threw himself into the part. Nancy Maultsby managed the upper reaches of Jezibaba’s part and made a querulous, unpredictable witch. Rochelle Bard, looking like the pretty “mean girl” Veronica from Archie, vamped up an enjoyable storm as the Foreign Princess. The level rose with the entrance of Bryan Hymel’s Prince, notable for ardent acting and remarkably pleasing, secure tenor tone. Hymel had the best Czech phonetics; one wondered why BLO didn’t stage this opera, largely unfamiliar here, in English.
Joanna Mongiardo, Sara Heaton, and Emily Marvosh handled Wood Sprite duties with aplomb and fresh tone. The six balletic Water Nymphs danced well, but in general there was excessive choreography in the external acts and insipid choreography at the castle, nothing to match the showy, sensual music (which Dvorák may have modeled on the Polish Act of Boris Godunov, a similarly artificial locus of treachery). Rochelle Bard, looking like the pretty “mean girl” Veronica from Archie, vamped up an enjoyable storm as the Foreign Princess; her edgy lyric-coloratura proved effective if rarely dulcet in the intimate Shubert. One left thinking, “What a great opera!” – always a good sign.