Mermaid, Interrupted

SFO’s production of Dvořák’s “Rusalka” interprets a classic fairy-tale swimmingly

Rusalka scenic design by Leslie Travers, photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera. (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim draws a link between psychoanalysis and fairy tales, arguing—and name-checking Sigmund Freud, who argued fairy tales provide an entryway into the unconscious mind—that psychoanalysis helps people accept life’s challenges without giving up, while fairy tales show children “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence.”

In his SFO debut, Director Sir David Pountney’s production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka embraces fairy tale as psychological exploration by re-envisioning it, as SFO says in its press materials, as “a Freudian fairy tale set in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna.” Scenic designer Leslie Travers realizes this vision with an all-white set filled with cabinets of curiosities and horrors, while still maintaining core elemental facets such as the lake—in which Rusalka splashes on one side of the stage and the tree where she sings the opera’s most famous aria, “Song to the Moon,” (albeit one made of chairs).

The story is simple enough and familiar: A mermaid-type creature (Rusalka means water nymph in Czech) falls in love with a human prince. She confesses to her father Vodnik, the Spirit of the Lake—bass James Creswell, wonderful in the role—that she wishes to become human so she can be with the prince, (a winsome tenor Robert Watson). Though unhappy to hear it, Vodnik sends Rusalka to Ježibaba (Czech for witch), who creates a potion to transform the sea nymph into a human woman, but also inflicts her with muteness and warns if the prince stops loving her, she will be cursed and eventually cause his death. The prince does indeed betray her, complaining she’s silent and cold. He takes up with a warm and passionate foreign princess, causing Rusalka great anguish. The fate about which Ježibaba warned Rusalka comes to pass, though the latter clings to her love for the prince, even though he’s cost her everything.

Left to Right; Raehann Bryce-Davis (Ježibaba), Ailyn Pérez (Rusalka). (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

The opera’s libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil takes cues from a variety of sources—primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine. As documented in myriad places, Dvořák cared about preserving Czech fairy tales and myths—he also wrote four symphonic poems based on Czech folk tales. Rusalka, though not his only opera, is certainly the only one for which he is known (and one that brought him accolades during his lifetime, particularly from his Czech homeland of Bohemia). The opera premiered in Prague in 1901 and came late to the United States: 1975. In the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s 2017 podcast on Rusalka, lecturer and musicologist Naomi Barrettara attributes that late arrival to the opera’s 19th-century Wagnerian elements (and also breaks down each character’s leitmotif by instrument) during a time in which interest was more tuned toward 20th-century composition. This year’s production is the first time the Santa Fe Opera has mounted Rusalka, and it’s certainly worth the wait. Highlights include soprano Ailyn Pérez in the title role with a riveting performance, sung beautifully throughout, which captures both the otherworldly nature of her character, as well as the very human-female jeopardy explored in this production.

Mythic lake and forest creatures scamper throughout the opera’s three acts—terrific performances from several of this season’s apprentices. The ever-moving sets bring forth new delights and heebie-jeebies throughout the evening. Most notably in the latter category: Ježibaba’s table of horrors as she sings “Čury mury fuk” (translation: abracadabra)—a frighteningly wonderful performance by mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis in her SFO debut—while preparing Rusalka’s potion. Set, costumes and lighting throughout the night provide an ongoing Rorschach test of sorts, with the white walls emphasizing the blood on Rusalka’s white gown, vivifying her new humanity; the red gown worn by the foreign princess (soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams in her feisty SFO debut) highlighting her sensual power; and Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth’s elemental use of color throughout the night summoning the unseen forest. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya drove the orchestra with high energy, matching each creative choice on stage—and there were many—note for note.

Is Rusalka really a sea nymph or a young girl in an institution struggling with the demands of life and society? Is the lake really a lake or just a metaphor for her unconscious mind? Is Vodnik actually the Spirit of that lake or just a fellow inmate in a green sweater? Hard to say. Sometimes an opera is just an opera. This one is both a musical and visual feast.

Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák

Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil

Sung in Czech

8:30 pm, July 26;

8 pm Aug. 4, 8, 17, 22

$40-$380, plus fees; $15 standing room

First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.

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