Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Shadows and Fog

June 18, 2019

Rachel Willis-Sorensen and Brandon Jovanovich in Rusalka Photo: Cory Weaver 2019

It was grey, cold, and overcast in San Francisco last weekend; perhaps the perfect weather to complement San Francisco Opera’s premiere of Dvorak’s Rusalka on Sunday. Perfect in that the weather outside easily mimicked the dark, gloomy, latter-day Victoriana, which is the preferred stomping ground of David McVicar, the new production’s director. SFO imported the production from Lyric Opera Chicago for their second ever presentation of Rusalka following a company premiere with Reneé Fleming in the title role in 1995. This tale of a water nymph who makes a bargain with a witch to become human and pursue a man she loves has been steadily growing in operatic popularity over the last thirty years thanks in no small part to a number of advocates including Charles Mackerras and Fleming herself. McVicar’s take on the story emphasizes the role of the Prince who rejects Rusalka’s love and later regrets it greatly. In this version, Rusalka is a dream of sorts of the unhappily married Prince as laid out in a pantomime that opens the staging. It’s an interesting idea, but one that rings hollow given that the libretto focuses almost exclusively on Rusalka’s internal emotional state. There are also overtones of the degradation of the natural world that parallel the characters’ emotional degradation. The woodland glen of the opening act is encroached upon by industrial runoff structures as the evening moves on. All of this is very dark and murkily lit, resulting in a show that is attractive if not always newly insightful. And while McVicar’s gloom certainly resonates with certain themes of this very adult fairy-tale, the performance itself was unabashedly one of brightness and shiny luster.

SFO has gathered together a world caliber cast for the performance, including the role debut of American soprano, Rachel Willis-Sorensen. Her star has been on the rise in the US and Europe in recent seasons and this is a major success for her. Her bright, easy tone soars above Dvorak’s lush orchestral writing and she is perfectly heartbreaking in the conclusion to this work. She is reason enough to see this production and undoubtedly a super-star in waiting. Opposite her is Brandon Jovanovich, a SFO favorite, as the Prince. His muscular tenor is well-suited for a role which seems like it was written for him. There is real chemistry between the two performers, which does more to sell this story than any amount of stage fog does. The witch Jezibaba is voiced by Jamie Barton, who again proves to be the most-valuable player in just about every performance she steps into. Despite being saddled with perhaps the worst of the corseted Victorian garb of anyone in the cast, she rises above it all with a remarkable rendition. The orchestra, under the direction of conductor Eun Sun Kim, was appropriately light and warmly lyrical at every turn.

Sasha Cooke and Christian Van Horn in Orlando Photo: Cory Weaver 2019

Playing opposite Rusalka this summer in San Francisco is the company’s second ever performances of Handel’s Orlando. SFO has an exceptionally good track record of presenting Handel’s operas and there are many things to admire about this staging as well. The production places the action in a London hospital during the Blitz. Orlando has let the battlefront in search of his love Angelica who is accompanying her love, Medoro, injured during combat. All the action takes place in various rooms of the hospital and director, Harry Fehr, cleverly recasts the magical spells Zororastro uses on Orlando at different moments in the libretto as psychiatric treatment used to help a shell-shocked Orlando “recover” from his angry plans of vengeance for a spurned love. Boldly this includes a scene of Orlando undergoing electric-shock treatments in the final Act. It all works decidedly well in a smart looking production that keeps up the pace in a Baroque plot that can seem muddled at times. Fehr also deftly deployed video elements at critical points in the story to elucidate actions critical to the plot but perhaps difficult to see from the audience such as the gifting, and later loss, of Orlando’s ring.

The cast was again filled with many notable American vocal artists. Orlando was sung by Sasha Cooke, who was announced as sick at the beginning of the evening, but performed admirably despite this. Heidi Stober, Christina Gansch, and Christian Van Horn all gave committed performances as well. If there was a stand out in the cast, it was countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who sang Medoro. He was a replacement for the originally announced David Daniels, who was withdrawn from the production last year. Cohen was on fire on Saturday. Vocally agile, warm, and powerful, he dominated every moment he was on stage. Christopher Moulds made his company debut in the pit with a well-paced and detail-oriented performance.


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