The last time the Metropolitan Opera staged Antonín Dvořák’s hauntingly beautiful fairytale opera Rusalka, it triggered an outpouring of critical contempt. The classical music press heaped scorn on director Otto Schenk’s traditional rendering of this story of a water nymph who makes a doomed bargain in the hope of gaining human love. Schenk’s painterly production, created in 1993 and last mounted in 2014, captured the moonlit mystery of Rusalka’s sylvan glen; the critics, however, derided the staging as “Disneyesque.” The New York Times’s Zachary Wolfe and the New York Observer’s James Jorden even provided a blueprint for how the Met should stage Dvořák’s harmonically suave work, invoking two perverse maulings of the opera then in vogue in Europe. In one, director Martin Kusej parroted an actual sex-abuse case from Austria in which a father raped his captive daughter in his basement for years. In the second, director Stefan Herheim turned the ethereal Rusalka into a Berlin prostitute and turned her compassionate father, a water gnome, into a dirty old man fantasizing about his unfulfilled sex life. Needless to say, neither of these grotesque conceits had anything to do with Dvořák’s complex balance of innocence and darker passion nor with the work’s lush Romantic score. But they fulfilled the contemporary directorial mandate to destroy the narrative conventions of the past with a heavy-handed wallop of depravity and identity politics.
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