Renee Fleming makes indelible memories in the title role of Anton Dvorak's fairy tale opera.
Delivering it from the top of a leafless tree in a wooded glade that set designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen might have lifted from an Arthur Rackham illustration, Fleming gives it the stately, moonstruck treatment it demands. The aria is so beautiful -- and so beautifully conducted by Jiri Belohlavek -- that it goes some way towards explaining why a diva would want to play the part of a water nymph who agrees to the loss of her voice if she can leave her watery domain to be loved by a human prince (Aleksandrs Antonenko).
Indeed, Rusalka does no singing whatsoever through most of the second act of this tale; instead, she keeps grabbing at her throat, while the prince grows impatient with her and falls under the sway of a haughty unnamed foreign princess (Christine Goerke). The out-of-her-element Rusalka only regains her voice fully in the third act when the wide-hipped and swiveling witch Jezibaba (Stephanie Blythe), who pulled her from the water in the first place, dumps her back in with the condition that she lure men to their death -- the contrite and willing prince included.
The lovely melodies Dvorak keeps spilling from the stage and orchestra pit as if it were a waterfall replenishing the lake Rusalka calls home is a perfect match for Fleming's voice. And she's not alone in making the most of the opportunities given. Although Antonenko pushed a few of his high notes in act one when the Prince wanders into the woods in search of Rusalka, whom he's mistaken for a white doe, he sang flawlessly afterwards. Blythe, who was a trumpeting Orfeo only a few weeks back, has one of the biggest voices at the house these days. Further, she is also an audacious performer, clearly relishing the opportunity to have some fun vocally and otherwise. In smaller roles, Kristinn Sigmundssen as Rusalka's water gnome dad gives plenty of boom for the buck, and his greenish-blue bare-chested appearance isn't unlike the little mermaid's Broadway counterpart. Also delightful as hyper-merry wood sprites are harmonizing Kathleen Kim, Brenda Patterson, and Edyta Kulczak.
If poked and probed, Rusalka would seem to be a warning against marrying across social lines, and her inability to speak when bumped up society's ladder a few rungs could be seen as the couple's having nothing to say to each other due to background differences. But forget the urge to look for deeper meanings. This Rusalka is far too pleasurable to be interrupted by such cogitation.