Perhaps there is no sadder tale in all of opera than that of Rusalka, the little water sprite who enters the human world in search of love, specifically the love of a certain prince who happens to be rotten to the core. He betrays her, and she enacts a special revenge: She literally kisses him to death, after which she will wander forever as a homeless spirit.
Drawing on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," Dvorak poured into "Rusalka" some of the most pungent and appealing music he ever wrote. The opera never has become standard repertoire, but it can, in the right hands, present a touching and rewarding experience.
That was certainly the case in 2008 when Minnesota Opera unveiled a "Rusalka" in a thoughtful, sensitive staging by Eric Simonson that featured a compelling portrait of wounded innocence in the title role by the Minnesota-born soprano Kelly Kaduce. It was also possibly the company's most beautiful production during the past decade, thanks largely to the opulent designs of Erhard Rom and the ingenious video projections by Wendall K. Harrington.
Happily, none of these virtues has been lost in the ensuing years. The revived "Rusalka," which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, looks even better this time around. Design motifs have been expanded and enhanced. The projections have taken on an eye-filling 3-D quality that puts the viewer, seemingly, right in the middle of certain scenes. (And there's that deer again, standing in the forest, as startled to see us as we are to see it.)
Kaduce is back, too, fortunately. Her voice isn't as opulent as those of renowned Rusalkas of recent years: Renee Fleming and Gabriela Benackova. But her silvery tone on opening night was pure, supple and focused, full of melancholy and dynamic poise. She sang her famous "Song To the Moon" with luminous phrasing, moving from tender plea to fierce desperation. Her lovesick sprite now has the dimension of tragedy in the final scenes — portrayed here as if the character is already dead and is carrying out the terms of the curse put upon her.
Kaduce dominates the production. The cast is uniformly strong, however. Subbing for the ailing Khachatur Badalyan, AJ Glueckert brought an impressively bright, almost heroic tenor, along with unsubtle but honest acting to the part of the prince. (Badalyan is expected to resume the role later in the week.) Ben Wager was a sympathetic Water Gnome, Shannon Prickett a haughty, big-voiced Princess and Marianne Cornetti a sly, rambunctious Witch. The exquisitely sung Dryads were Siena Forest, Bergen Baker and Jennifer Panara. Michael Christie conducted.
The essential idea of the production (with costumes by Karin Kopischke and choreography by Heidi Spesard-Noble), the notion of two distinct worlds, comes across even more clearly in this revival. We owe the notion chiefly to Rousseau: Nature is pure and unsullied whereas civilization and culture, represented chiefly by the denizens of the city — including, we presume, just about everybody gathered at the Ordway Saturday night — are decadent and about ready to self-destruct.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.