Rusalka, an opera by Antonin Dvorak, is based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of "The Little Mermaid"- and you all thought it was a Disney story. Rusalka, played by the internationally acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming, is about a water nymph who falls in love with a prince (Sergei Larin). She pulls a Faust-like move and gives her soul, her family, and her beautiful voice to the witch, Jezibaba (Felicity Palmer), who turns her into a human. Upon meeting the prince, her muteness does not prevent him from falling in love with the stunning Rusalka.
However, this is dramatic opera, and life cannot go on as beautifully as it should. Rusalka is challenged by a foreign princess' presence (Stephanie Sundine). She also questions her identity as a human or a water nymph and concludes that she is neither. She begs her father, the Water Spirit (Philip Skinner), to take her back and help her. Unfortunately, that was not part of the original deal that Rusalka made with Jezibaba. Instead, Rusalka's spirit returns to the water to lure her former love to his death by a chilling kiss.
It is hard to describe the feeling that Rusalka leaves you with. There is an amount of disappointment that Rusalka doesn't "live happily ever after." But there is also the understanding of the moral of the story which is to the effect that you can never be something that you intrinsically are not. Rusalka had to fail at being a human because she was, at heart and soul, a water nymph. She even complains that passion is a human emotion that she never learned and is not capable of possessing. I would argue, however, that in her singing, she covered a whole range of emotions that are as human as they are super-human. Fleming's voice penetrated throughout the opera house and grabbed me by the throat.
Other vocal stand-outs were bass, Philip Skinner, and mezzo-soprano, Felicity Palmer. Palmer's voice, especially, rung out with a timbre literally a cut about the rest. Clear and concentrated, her voice could clearly fill the largest of opera halls.
The orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, played with warmth and emotion to accompany the singers at a comfortable level, while leaving room for individual expression. The set, designed by Guenther Schneider-Siemssen, sparkled green and blue. I could imagine the breeze in the woodsy area where Rusalka lived. Costumes, by Dietmar Solt, were a visual pleasure to complement the beautiful production.
On the conclusion of my adventure with the San Francisco Opera, I couldn't have been happier to end it on a note as lovely as the final ones played by the orchestra as the curtain drew to a close for this final production of the 1995 season.