San Francisco Opera opened “Rusalka’’ early last week as part of the three-opera June season.
Let’s count the ways the performance shines: Dvorak’s dark fairy tale about a water nymph who yearns for a mortal lover is sung in Czech by a superlative cast, the staging is without flaw, there are remarkable visual settings of an emerald forest with its corps of extravagantly costumed nymphs, an impeccable performance by the large company chorus, and a corps of dancers at a glittering ball — that would seem to be enough.
There was more, though, in the form of a young Korean conductor who brings all the elements together in a richly detailed, buoyant performance of Dvorak’s lavish score.
If at times the opera orchestra seemed to take off with sheer ebullience, the singers were more than willing to scale the musical heights with conductor Eun Sun Kim: her unleashed rhythmic balances brought the process to thrilling heights at times.
David McVicar’s production, with set designer John Macfarlane, was created for Chicago Lyric in 2014. In addition to the water-world and royal ballroom scenes, there is a kitchen straight from “Sweeney Todd,” and an amusing trio of tuxedo-clad blackbirds.
American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Rusalka was spectacular: all of her longing, expressed in a gleaming, authoritative voice that left no doubt about her determination to leave behind her life as a forest creature and find her prince.
Her voice shimmers with darkish colors, precise in focus and phrasing, but daringly untethered at the same time. She made her passion as well as her desperation real, and in an early scene with the Prince, a gesture of love made with full-body emotion reminded of the little mermaid, very much present in her portrayal.
Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was the Prince, dashing vocally and dramatically as Rusalka’s partner.
Jamie Barton was more than vocally wiggy enough to be convincing as the witch who helps Rusalka achieve her dream (exacting the promises that she may no longer speak in her transformed state), and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Rusalka’s father and Sarah Cambidge as the foreign princess delivered powerful performances.
Handel’s sprightly “Orlando,’’ a tale of much magic and many loves, has been offered only once at San Francisco Opera, a staging dedicated to the lustrous mezzo Marilyn Horne in 1985.
This “Orlando’’ is less lustrous on some accounts, mostly because of a campy setting that underserves the glorious score and diminishes focus on some pretty glorious singing.
Orlando, in the 1500s tales on which the opera is based, was a knight famed for his valor on the battlefield.
In Harry Fehr’s production, first performed by Welsh Opera in 2015, the hero is far from the traditional plumed, armored warrior; he is a World War II fighter pilot recovering from injuries in a London field hospital. Patients and nonpatients linger inexplicably for three and a half hours at the hospital, making the already-complex plot difficult to parse.
The story: Orlando loves Angelica, who loves Medoro, also a patient in the hospital. The nurse Dorinda loves Medoro too, and believes he returns her love. A complicated plot for a five-person opera, and one on which Handel spun out ravishing arias, recitative and duets, and created a mad scene in which Orlando unravels memorably.
Zoroastro, normally a sorcerer who attempts to persuade Orlando to abandon love and return to battle, in this staging is the chief hospital doctor.
The magical element is missed: instead of using his sorcerer powers to persuade Orlando, Zoroastro shows him photographs of the wayward Edward VIII and the woman for whom he abandoned the throne, a wimpy sort of argument, and finally resorts to shock therapy. With supers bustling about the endlessly revolving set by designer Yannis Thavoris, there are very few tranquil moments in which to simply admire the music.
But to the singing: Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in the title role (originally written for castrato) delivered an unusually light-voiced, unfocused performance. The role seems to sit well within her range, but her richly-toned voice was often lost in the orchestral sweep. In the all-important mad scene darkly hued passages hinted at what might have been.
Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, an overnight superstar in these parts, shined as Medoro. No mistaking the intelligence and beauty of this voice, with a large and handsome presence to match.
Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, in her U.S. debut, was a high-energy, comedic powerhouse as Dorinda, a newcomer to watch. Soprano Heidi Stober presented as a bold-voiced Angelica, and Christian Van Horn’s nicely graveled bass made for an ideal Zoroastro.
The fact that all five principals were singing their roles for the first time had to made this a difficult proposition, but English conductor Christopher Mould, in his company debut, energized the opera orchestra with its sparkling cello-theorbo-harpshchords continuo, and managed to keep everything well in hand.
The summer season at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House closes with “Carmen” on Saturday, June 29.