“Rusalka” – Arizona Opera

This review aired on KBAQ November 14, 2016


Arizona Opera, Symphony Hall
Phoenix, AZ

It’s significant that Arizona Opera has reached the point in its 45-year history where they can program other than warhorse opera hits.  Those tired and true works like “Madama Butterfly” and “Cinderella” that are both part of the remaining current season, still make up the majority of their annual seasons but local opera lovers now get unusual works that are rarely performed by major American opera companies and, later this season, the company presents its first world premiere opera, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” that is written by an Arizona composer.

But just because it’s a rarely performed opera does not automatically make it a work to treasure even if the local production is well sung but not inspirationally staged or set.  This was the case over the weekend when Arizona Opera presented Antonin Dvorak’s most famous opera, 1901s “Rusalka,” a rather trite fairytale about magical nymphs and gnomes based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

The three-hour work dragged on with beauteous but unnecessary musical exposition while the plot meandered to a predictable conclusion after audiences endured much static boredom from Joshua Borths’ uninspired and plodding production.  While the opera was not well staged, an ensemble of dynamic singers sang the work superbly and Steven White conducted a spirited reading of the score by an artful orchestra.  “Rusalka” wasn’t aided by the Houston Grand Opera scenery or costumes which tried to be ethereal and magically expressive but just looked clunky, cheap, and mundane.

The commendable cast was quite comfortable with this first local opera presented in Czech.  The language was interesting to hear and the helpful English translation above the stage made it easier to discern the plot.

Especially brilliant both dramatically and musically, Sara Gartland was commandingly exquisite as the title character.  Also impressive was Daveda Karanas’ as the evil witch Jezibaba and Alexandra Loutsion as The Foreign Princess.

Of the male singers, David Danholt was a stalwart Prince and Richard Paul Fink was a fine Vodnik, leader of the nymphs.  Unfortunately, toward the opera’s conclusion one male singer who won’t be named, hit a very discordant sour note that one hopes was corrected at the final two Phoenix performances and will not occur in this coming weekend’s Tucson performances.

“Rusalka” was an interesting diversion and a chance for local operagoers to see a rarely performed Dvorak opera.  “Rusalka” ended its Phoenix run Sunday, November 13 but continues in Tucson through November 20.  To order Tucson tickets, call the Arizona Opera box office at 602-266-7464 or order tickets online at www.azopera.org.

Grade: C