The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” may be the unlikeliest hit of the season, a staging that takes opera’s answer to “The Little Mermaid” fairy tale and turns it into an almost shockingly dark, sexy drama. The mysterious look of the production, fantastical and ominous, combines with the sensual singing of a handsome cast to create a romantic energy rare at the Met — or at any opera house.
When this project was first announced, “Rusalka” seemed a promising match for the director Mary Zimmerman, best known for casting fairy tale magic in her Tony Award-winning “Metamorphoses.” But many were wary. Her three previous productions for the company, though full of ideas, were all variously disappointing. With this “Rusalka,” though, Ms. Zimmerman comes into her own as a director at the Met.
Working with the set designer Daniel Ostling, the costume designer Mara Blumenfeld and the lighting designer T. J. Gerckens, Ms. Zimmerman has explored the dark complexities of this fable. At the opening on Thursday, Mark Elder conducted a glowing account of Dvorak’s score. And the Met has assembled a matchless cast, led by the lovely soprano Kristine Opolais, who gives a vocally lustrous and achingly vulnerable performance as Rusalka, the water nymph who falls in love with a human prince.
When Rusalka, who is Vodnik’s daughter, starts to tell her father about her sorrows and longing, Ms. Opolais, with golden hair and a far-off gaze, wears an aqua gown with long, flowing trails, almost like rivulets of lake water. The cumbersome dress weighs her down: This is just one detail of many with which Ms. Zimmerman suggests that Rusalka is not just part of, but bound by, the natural world. And with her fidgety physical gestures and darting eyes, Ms. Opolais conveys the character’s restlessness and pining. This powerful singing actress adds unusual intensity to her plaintive “Song to the Moon,” Rusalka’s famed lament, suggesting the character’s defiant side more than most sopranos.
By the end of the opera, when Rusalka has fled the castle and returned to her pond, Ms. Zimmerman has turned the meadow gray and dank; the set’s scaffolding is partly exposed. Or is this just the way it appears to Rusalka? Perhaps she now sees, with painful clarity, the bare beams that prop up the seemingly rich natural world. The prince has gone in search of Rusalka, and finds her: Now, finally, the two have a real love duet, impassioned, fitful music, sung here with burnished sound and wrenching beauty by Ms. Opolais and Mr. Jovanovich.
But the doomed Rusalka has become a moonlit phantom, as she warns the prince. By kissing her, he dies. In a final directorial gesture, before heading alone into the forest, Rusalka puts on the prince’s coat. This time, though, it seems a token of remembrance.