Rusalka caught between fantasy and reality

The nymphs. © Eléna Bauer/Opéra de Paris

April 2015: I am at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and the final curtain on Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka”, Op. 114 has just fallen. An exhilarating experience. I remember I left the opera in a kind of trance, perpetuated at least for some time by a glass of wine at the opera restaurant. The magnitude of the performance, directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Jakub Hrusa, probably was the main reason why I never resolved myself to write a post about it even though I had one scheduled for autumn 2015. I was worried that the unique impression of music, the acting and the stage design would dwarf anything I would feel when listening to a mere recording and prevent me from rendering justice to Dvorak’s work (the casting is available here).

May 2018: Three years later I leave a Vienna music store with a copy of the libretto, written by Jaroslav Kvapils (1868-1950), in my hand. A little later on the plane back home, I take a decision: It’s time to talk about “Rusalka”. Dvorak wrote the score between June and November 1900, the premiere took place in Prague on March 31, 1901. Until this day it remains Dvorak’s most popular opera, and in a libretto addendum written by Otakar Sourek, a Czech fellow composer, I found the following characterization: “Dvorak’s musical genius captured in the most perfect way two worlds that by definition are incompatible: human reality and fairytale fantasy.” Sourek emphasizes the dominance of lyrical elements, the colourful vocal parts and the melodies “shimmering like an opal”.

A nymph longing for human love

The plot is rather straightforward: Rusalka is a water nymph and she wants to take the shape of a human to experience the love of a man. Her father, the water goblin, warns her about the danger of living with humans, in vain. Rusalka seeks the help of a witch, Jezibaba, who transforms her into a woman under the condition that she will consent to stay mute for the rest of her life. At the end of Act I, the inevitable prince arrives, falls in love with Rusalka and takes her with him.

The setting of Act II is the prince’ castle. Neither Rusalka’s beauty nor her muteness goes unnoticed, the former triggers the jealousy of a foreign princess who seduces the prince. The prince then rejects Rusalka and the act ends on a dramatic note. The water goblin gate-crashes the castle looking for his daughter.

Rusalka has returned to her lake in Act III, but the other nymphs avoid her since she has been in touch with humans. He fate is cruel: She belongs to neither world and her sole purpose is to lead them to their death. She implores Jezibaba to help her. The witch suggests her to kill the prince, but this is not an option for Rusalka. Servants from the castle show up, looking for Rusalka. Since her departure, the prince is ill. The water goblin accuses the prince of having betrayed Rusalka and the servants flee in horror. The prince keeps looking for her and when they meet, Rusalka is able to speak. He wants her to forgive her and to kiss her, but she warns him that this will mean his death. He doesn’t care and dies in contented bliss. Sigh!

A distant cousin from Luxembourg

“Rusalka” as a story strikes a chord with me as it reminds me of a Luxembourg fairy tale, that is actually part of the founding myth of the city of Luxembourg. The nymph is called “Melusina” and the prince has the name of Siegfried. He fell in love with Melusina and, taking of a woman,  she moved into his castle under the condition that she could spend one day a week unobserved in the bathroom. On that day she would become a nymph again. Siegfried, curious and jealous, observes her on such a day through the keyhole – and gets caught. Melusina jumps out of the window and disappears into the river that flows below the castle. Since that time she has been sewing her burial robe – every 1000 years a stitch. The city of Luxembourg will be disappear the day Melusina will do the last stitch. Such a lovely story, isn’t it?

But back to Dvorak and his opera. Dvorak’s instrumental music is the vector of the emotions of this opera while the vocal parts play a secondary role: they move the story forward but are far less remarkable than the symphonic quality, the almost impressionist color of the orchestral parts. There are a few exceptions however.

The operatic high-lights

Rusalka’s aria expressing her longing for human love (Act I: Sem casto prichazi…), whose intensity reminded me of Tatyana’s aria in the first act of “Evgenij Onegi”, is lovely, just as her emotional Song to the Moon (Act I: Mesicku na nebi hlubokem…), introduced by delicate harp chords.

The woods introduce the prince’s bewildered confession that Rusalka’s mysterious behaviour fascinates him as much as it irritates him (Act II: Jiz tyden dlis…) – an emotional moment – and the effect of the acid remarks about Rusalka that the foreign princess addresses to the prince are not lost on the audience either.

In Act III a particularly enjoy the three nymphs singing about their bliss – a stark contrast to Rusalka’s plight and the water goblin’s sorrow about her fate (Mam, zlate vlasky mam…)

A word about stage design

The importance of Dvorak’s orchestral music for “Rusalka” became only apparent to me while I watched an extremely disappointing Metropolitan Opera production on DVD. The setting was old-fashioned and pompous, and more than once do body language and acting of the singers not match the emotions expressed by the music and the words sung or declaimed. This unfortunately totally distracts from Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s enthusiastic work with the Metropolitan Opera’s  orchestra.

The Paris production was much more austere, it used a contemporary setting and the stage design enhanced the emotional effect of the music instead of monopolizing my attention (and provoking constant anger!). For the time being the DVD will be stashed away, and I will stick to the superb recording by Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerass. In both cases I am entitled to Renée Fleming’s beautiful voice.

© Charles Thibo

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