Despite, or more reasonably perhaps because of, the enormous popularity during his own lifetime of conspicuously folk-flavoured pieces like his Moravian Duets­ and Slavonic Dances, Antonín Dvořák did not regard himself as a fundamentally Czech composer. At least not for the first two decades of his career. The influences he most carefully cultivated — Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and especially Wagner — these were the voices he most consistently sought to emulate when composing for his fellow countrymen.

Then suddenly in June 1891, a telegram arrived from New York offering him a residency as composition teacher and director emeritus of The National Conservatory of Music of America. The salary was staggering, $15,000 per academic year, more than thirty times Dvořák ‘s then total annual income from modest commissions augmented by occasional manuscript sales. Setting aside his apprehension (Dvořák was plagued by crippling bouts of intermittent agoraphobia), with a wife and six children to provide for, the composer packed his bags and set sail for the U.S. The twenty-four months he spent listening, travelling and working there would throw his entire artistic point of view into sharp new focus.

Following the debut of his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, a work generously accented by distinctly American overtones — gospels and spirituals, a scherzo inspired by a close reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, a triumphant finale ringing with shameless continental optimism — Dvořák returned to Prague for reasons still not fully understood. What is eminently clear, however, is the blaze of music fuelled by the traditions of his homeland that consumed him for the last few years of his life. In 1901 Rusalka, an opera uniquely, resonantly Czech premiered in Prague, a next to last work, a lifetime in the making, from a proud, re-inspired cultural patriot.

Sometimes it can be a long journey from head to heart.

Raising the curtain on a sprawling, darkly atmospheric production of Dvořák’s moody masterpiece, the Canadian Opera Company unveils a Rusalka rich in resonance, pulsing with energy. Directed by David McVicar, originated in 2014 by Lyric Opera of Chicago, an unapologetically gothic tale of love and magic, misery and doom bursts into being.

As tempting as it may be to view Rusalka in terms of strict Jungian archetypes or primal dreamscape (neither attitude is wholly inappropriate), there is another plausible perspective, a wider window on the piece.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with shades of Friedrich de la Motte Foqué’s Undine overlaid with remnants of an older Slavic fairytale, Rusalka bubbles with subtext. Written by poet/playwright/librettist Jaroslav Kvapil in 1899, the poignant parable instantly resonated with Dvořák when first presented to him. Part poetic fantasy, part superstitious lore, Rusalka looked far into the past, a touching reflection of a profoundly soulful myth.

Kvapil’s tale, vibrantly embellished by the composer in best Romantic style, has all the ingredients of a quasi medieval morality play.  A water nymph magically made demi-mortal by a witch’s spell escapes the realm of the deep in search of earthly human love. A dangerous game. Rusalka’s defiance of the natural order, her rash exercise of unordained free will respects no established Christian boundaries. The object of the reckless naiad’s obsession, an impetuous prince, relentless hunter of innocent game, commands a cruel ordered world, one with no place for those who claw themselves free of the mud. Woe to her who breaks the Chain of Being. The supernatural is courted. God is challenged. Doom is guaranteed.

Dvořák was a devoutly religious man who, for all his breadth of musical expression, forever remained a product of his times. It would take over three decades before the opera was fully appreciated outside Central Europe. Ubohá Rusalko bleda, v nádheru svèta zakletá. (“Poor, pale Rusalka. Sent by a spell into the dazzling world.”)

Visually, the look and feel of McVicar’s Rusalka is as evocative as it is metaphoric. Set designer John Macfarlane and lighting designer David Finn conjure a haunted universe, a spine-chilling panorama of ominous images. A sinister forest of skeletal trees eerily beckoning in the cold night wind. A sweaty, smoky palace kitchen hung with gruesome butchered carcasses. A vast drafty baronial hall lined with the mounted heads of numberless slaughtered stags. Lavish visuals overwhelm. The opera draws to a close. Rusalka walks towards a cheerless sunrise, cursed, homeless, trapped in limbo between life and death. The sadness is monumental. Direction and art design tear at the heart.

Appearing in Rusalka’s taxing title role, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky delivers a performance of exceptional strength and physicality. This is a voice of formidable spinto heft, implacable and robust with a seemingly limitless top, powerfully dramatic yet somehow gracious. Her “Song to the Moon” (Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém), a glowing centrepiece in the operatic canon, though arguably not quite as ethereal as might ideally be desired, is an exercise in the kind of centred, masterly control that speaks of great confidence and meticulous attention to technique. A distinctly scaled up Wagnerian take on Rusalka’s much abused nymph. Radvanovsky’s extended Act III duet with the Prince has all the potency and largesse of Tristan und Isolde. Dvořák, who adored the German iconoclast’s operas, would almost certainly have approved.

Visiting Czech tenor Pavel Černoch enchants as the raffish Prince, his voice, with its unexpectedly distinctive Italianate tint, lofty and silvery. Singing with considerable passion and grandeur, soprano Keri Alkema contributes a haughty scheming Foreign Princess, jealous enemy of Rusalka, malice personified.

Bass Štefan Kocán is an imposing Vodnik the water sprite, full-bodied and deep-toned, anxious father to Rusalka. Mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina sings a riveting Ježibaba the witch, mesmerizing and terrifying in equal turns, her genuinely hair-raising familiars, horrific giant crows, forever lurking in her shadow.

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher appears with mezzos Jamie Groote and Lauren Segal as a thoroughly captivating trio of breezy wood nymphs, pretty and petulant. Dokola, sestřičky, dokola, they chant (“Let’s dance, sisters, let’s dance”), skipping not so innocently through the desolate glade that is Rusalka’s prison.

Commanding a towering Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, resident conductor Johannes Debus leads with a fine sense of refinement and sparkle. Leitmotifs are clearly defined, harmonies soundly developed, tempi luxurious. The swirling Act II polonaise celebrating Rusalka’s ill-fated wedding to the Prince is given a particularly spectacular airing. Dvořák delighted in dance and choreographer Andrew George’s troupe of classical artists more than do justice to the maestro’s score, charmingly animating the perfect little balletic scene-in-scene.

Rusalka is a challenging opera. A Symbolist allegory charged with excruciating human suffering, the work is simultaneously intimate and emblematic, pointed and abstract. The current COC iteration, dazzlingly staged, movingly sung surges across the footlights, enveloping us, drawing us in. To resist is futile. The power is inexorable. An intricate, rewarding Rusalka. An immensely dynamic piece.

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Above: Elena Manistina as Ježibaba, Sondra Radvanovsky as Rusalka. Photo: Michael Cooper