'Rusalka' at the Pittsburgh Opera; In Love with Love Itself

With the trailer for Disney’s live action "The Little Mermaid" coming out recently, it was only fitting that the Pittsburgh Opera’s season opener was Rusalka, dubbed “Opera’s Own Little Mermaid.” However, contrary to the slogan, Rusalka’s origins trace back to early 20th century Czech Republic, when composer Antonín Dvořák based his libretto on Czech and Slavic folklore. Here, Rusalka is no mermaid, but a water nymph. She also loses her voice, but here it comes back in bouts of despair and anguish over a lost love.

For an opera performed by the Pittsburgh Opera cast for the first time in its 83-year history, I found that production took great care in defending the accuracy and cultural context of the show itself. Czech scholars and historians were called in to help, with Czech diplomats who came to watch receiving applause during the pre-show announcements. While the plot of Rusalka itself was quite straightforward, the awareness to the origins of the show was greatly appreciated from my standpoint as a historian.

For the lonesome Rusalka, soprano Sara Gartland put on a stellar, although somewhat expected, performance. From my seats in the Director’s Circle, I could hear Gartland clearly enough, although certain low notes became lost within the orchestral accompaniment. While I wish I could have seen more of her versatility during the show, having only been spared love songs and longing the entire two hours and 40 minutes, I also believe that Rusalka’s lack of character development highly contributed to this factor. Rusalka’s outfit, however, is crafted beautifully. With a long, flowing gown that ripples as she moves, the colors reflect the depths of the sea — a light aquamarine slowly turning into a deep navy near the ends. The strands of fabric on her back are meant to mimic the dorsal fin of a fish, her sleeves meant to be the webbed fins.

Rusalka’s father Vodnik, played by Hao Jiang Tian, entered the scene more as a comedic relief but quickly transformed into the hauntingly desperate laments of a worried father. As Hao’s voice bounded off the walls of the Benedum Center, you could hear the audience shift in their seats — almost made uneasy by the ghost-like sounds. Hao’s costuming, however, was the most disappointing part of the production. Perhaps the costume department spared no attention to the men of the show, but I found that Vodnik, as well as the Prince that Rusalka falls in love with, had the worst outfits of the entire production. Vodnik is dressed in what can only be described as a vomit-blue-grey cloth, while the Prince’s outfits seem more akin to B.F. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly than a 19th century European aristocrat.

Perhaps the best part of the opera, however, was Leah Hawkins in the role of the Foreign Princess. While her parts only appear during the second and shortest act, her entrance with the chilling line “No, this is not love / Ne, není to láska” strikes at the fantastical ideal of a “happily ever after.” She is cold, ruthless, but above all (as Rusalka laments), she is passionate. The Prince has almost no choice but to fall for her, and Hawkins perfects that sly cunning perfectly. Her notes reached all points of the theatre (a hard task given the somewhat overpowering acoustics of the orchestra), and her impact was plenty. Hawkins was what I wished the character of Rusalka’s aunt and wish-granting witch, Ježibaba, was given. Played by Marianne Cornetti, I found the initial introduction to her character lackluster — lacking much of the pomp and circumstance that someone “feared by nymphs and loved by humans” should possess. While Cornetti warmed up to the role as the third act began, I felt the initial gap even then.

Despite my quarrels with the plot itself, Rusalka by the Pittsburgh Opera was enjoyable. With the rest of the season marked by both classics and newer generation shows, I encourage any curious music lover to buy a student ticket and check it out.

Through September 17th, 2022, at the Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh. “Rusalka” continues with further dates on the 20th, 23th, and 25th.