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OPERA REVIEW

BLO brings Dvorak's lyric fairy tale to life

Bryan Hymel stars as the Prince and Marquita Lister is the title character in ''Rusalka.'' Bryan Hymel stars as the Prince and Marquita Lister is the title character in ''Rusalka.'' (JEFFREY DUNN/File)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

Poor old Dvorak devoted himself to writing operas throughout his creative life. He wrote more of them than he did symphonies - about 10 operas in total - but you've probably never heard of most of them, despite titles as memorable as "The King and the Charcoal Burner." The composer's operatic fairy tale "Rusalka" is the only piece to have found a secure place in the repertoire.

It was written in 1900 and based on a text by Jaroslav Kvapil about forbidden love between a water nymph and a human prince. It's been a favorite Czech opera since its Prague premiere; Mahler was intrigued by the score; and one beautiful soprano aria, "Song to the Moon," has taken on its own independent life as a lyrical bonbon dispensed by divas. But "Rusalka" had apparently not been staged locally until Friday night, when Boston Lyric Opera opened its vivid production (shared with the Minnesota Opera) at the Shubert Theatre.

The debate about the work has long centered on whether it is an opera with enough dramatic momentum to effectively hold the stage or more of a static collection of lyrical tableaux. In this production, directed by Eric Simonson, it feels like both, depending on the act. Despite the heavy use of stage projections to set the various wooded or watery scenes, a portion of the mysterious allure and dark sensuality of Dvorak's opera remains out of reach. But the new staging has many visually compelling moments and serves the spirit of the music clearly and faithfully.

At the core of the opera is of course the plight of its title character, a denizen of a cool watery world who longs for the warmth of human love but is unprepared for the volatility and fickleness of human passion. Her prince ultimately forsakes her and she returns to her realm cursed. The Prince seeks her out once more in her moonlit lake, with predictably tragic consequences.

Braving the difficulties of the Czech-language libretto, soprano Marquita Lister sang the role of Rusalka respectably, and seemed to gain in strength and confidence as the night went on. When she was vocally at her best, her lower range revealed an alluring mix of colors and her upper register had the strength to cut through the orchestra without sounding brittle.

Bryan Hymel as the Prince sang with a particularly robust and clear tenor and had sound dramatic instincts. John Cheek brought vocal resonance and dramatic gravity to the role of Vodnik the Water Gnome. Amusingly costumed like a batty professor on leave from Hogwarts, Nancy Maultsby sang the role of the witch Jezibaba with a rich and appealingly earthy tone. Rochelle Bart was imperious as the Foreign Princess.

Dvorak's score is full of ingenious and highly imaginative orchestral touches as well as evocative conjuring of the Bohemian landscape; Wagner's influence is never far but neither is it front and center. Friday night, Ari Pelto kept things moving effectively in the pit, though the playing was not without its rough patches. Still, BLO deserves credit for finally giving local audiences the opportunity to experience Dvorak's operatic moment in the sun.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

DVORAK'S RUSALKA Presented by Boston Lyric Opera

At: the Shubert Theatre, Friday night (through March 31)

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