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Try to notice the performance

The Rover 15.11.2011

Some people talk about putting on a Czech opera like you wear a lead apron to do it, but that isn’t true. It’s perfectly legal. So don’t buy the argument that a production of Dvořák’s Rusalka (containing an aria you’ll find on every best-of opera disc) means the Opera de Montreal took any risks. Not with the programming, anyway.

I am all for hands-on training. Education is the future. And it’s definitely the best way to maintain Montreal’s commanding lead in staged self-abuse. But perhaps it was premature to give the staging over to the Loyola High School Audiovisual Club?

Obviously some generous adults put their names on the credits, but they couldn’t possibly be responsible for the adolescent diddling we were subjected to on Saturday, as Word 2000’s finest clipart videos were projected onto a foam landscape older than Vodnik the water troll (bass Robert Pomakov). Worse, the potential was there for an interesting irony between the retro renderings and onstage tragedy, but a clumsy set and lazy directing made it impossible.

So the singers, as usual, had to save the production. And Jezibaba (mezzo Liliana Nikiteanu) took care of it, crackling with weird energy as the witch who turns Rusalka into a mute human. She channeled John Lithgow circa Buckaroo Banzai in an unprecedented way, her voice clutching at the ends of phrases and squeezing the creepy out. Pomakov also extracted surprising novelty from his tired Vodnik, sad and confused as a hippie whose daughter comes home with a cop on her arm.

Rusalka (soprano Kelly Kaduce) had a more complicated role. She isn’t Disney’s headstrong mermaid, there’s something Greek to her instead; a 19th century sin for loving the wrong species (read: social class) perhaps? Balancing predestined tragedy with self-assurance demands good acting and Kaduce handled herself coolly but well; still, it was more fun to watch Nikiteanu twitch and Pomakov limp.

Kaduce has a clear and supple voice, but it was not warm enough for her “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém,” in the first act. She sang better and better; by the third she was struggling only to have chemistry with the plank-prince (tenor Khachatur Badalyan). I mean, when you are singing about gazing into the eyes of your love, it’s easier on the audience if you look at her.

Mezzos Aidan Ferguson and Emma Parkinson, with soprano Chantale Nurse, sparkled as a trio of flirting wood nymphs, despite their constant harassment by ballerinas. A demonstration by the Polish heavy armaments industry (soprano Ewa Biegas as the Foreign Princess) further interrupted the performance, but after she left and the dead were carted off, I found that I appreciated the other singers significantly more.

John Keenan’s conducting debut was underwhelming, but not everyone is ready for the nuances of Wilfred-Pelletier. I hope he will try again.