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Operapedia: Rusalka 

Henry Stewart learns from Dvořák’s folksy fairy tale that life is better down where it’s wetter.
by Henry Stewart. 

 

The Basics   

A mermaid wishes to be human, so a witch makes it so; a prince falls in love with her, then rejects her a week later, so she becomes a death-spirit, and the prince dies when he finds her and kisses her.


 

Time and Place  

Dvořák’s opera is the last gasp of Romanticism in the Wagnerian tradition, doing what Puccini was doing at the same time for Italian opera. (Tosca had its premiere just a year before Rusalka.) Whether that was true of all his operas is hard to say, because Rusalka is the only one of his ten that endures in the international repertoire; some of them are not even available on CD. “So little interest has there been in Dvořák’s dramatic efforts that OPERA NEWS in the thirty-nine years of its existence has never carried an article on the subject,” this magazine reported in December 1975. “Dvořák’s … operas have just not been opera news.”

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Operapedia Van damme lg 516  ◀︎  In Pop Culture

A Lucia Popp recording of the song to the moon appears in Bicentennial Man, spun by Robin Williams’s character on a record player that he’s fixed. (Williams appeared in the first episode of Shelly Duvall’s HBO series Faerie Tale Theater; one of the series’s final episodes was an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Coincidence?) According to IMDb, the song also appears in the 2003 Jean-Claude van Damme film In Hell, although I must make an embarrassing confession: I’ve never seen that particular van Damme film!

 

Reactions   

“The curious thing about this opera … is its date, which is 1900,” Olin Downes wrote in 1955 in TheNew York Times. “[A]s far as harmony is concerned … the score could date from 1850 or earlier. [Also,] by the time he wrote it Dvořák knew Tristan and the Ring, and the Wagnerian ways of the ‘leading-motive,’ which he uses abundantly in Rusalka, yet remains in this score essentially and incorrigibly Dvořák the folk-singer. For the opera is essentially a folk-opera.” That folk element is present in much other Dvořák work, from the Slavonic Dances to the New World Symphony.


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◀︎  Surprise Showstopper  

Rusalka is a daring story for an opera, because it renders the soprano mute for much of the action (as part of her deal with the sea witch, Ježibaba). When the prince enters, late in Act I, the music begs for a love duet, but we get only a tenor aria; this tension, a kind of un-consummation, builds. In Otto Schenk’s production, which made it to the Met in 1993 (with Dolora Zajick as a delectable Ježibaba), the Act II ballet, an anguished interlude, plays like a voiceless lament from Rusalka, who at last unleashes her pent-up despondency in a wrenching aria of loss, “Ó, márno to je.” There’s a surprisingly progressive subtext here—to be a fully human woman is to have a strong voice!

 
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Spoiler Alerts  

Water nymphs were a common element of Russian and Eastern European mythology. Pushkin even wrote a verse drama about them, which Dargomyzhsky turned into an opera, in 1856. Dvořák’s libretto was adapted by Jaroslav Kvapil from myriad sources, including Czech fairy tales and Fouqué’s 1811 novella Undine(itself based on the medieval legend of Melusine), which was also adapted into operas by E. T. A. Hoffmann (yes, the writer of “The Nutcracker” was also a composer) and Tchaikovsky, among others. (Tchaikovsky subsequently destroyed his score.) Undine inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” published in 1837, and Dvořák’s opera inspired Disney’s 1989 animated Andersen adaptation. Ariel’s “Part of Your World” is just a lowbrow mashup of Dvořák’s “Sem často přichází” and “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém.” 


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◀ First Performances  

The opera had its premiere in Prague in March 1901 but took a while to reach the English-speaking world. England didn’t stage a professional production until 1959, the U.S. until 1975. The Met first produced it in 1993, though the song to the moon was heard there as early as 1912, when Czech soprano Emmy Destinn sang it in concert. Renée Fleming also performed it there, on April 10, 1988, at her Met debut—the National Council Winners Concert. She would go on to make Rusalka a signature role.


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Something  Completely  Different   

Stefan Herheim’s 2008 Brussels production was no fairy tale in a Bohemian forest. It opened in what Patrick Dillon, reviewing the EuroArts DVD (recorded at a 2012 revival) for opera news, called a “neon-lit, rain-pelted urban square”; Ježibaba was a “frumpy flower vendor” and Rusalka “a platinum-wigged, kinky-booted streetwalker.” Dillon continued, “I haven’t mentioned the copulating, devil-horned nuns, the multiple stabbings or the orgiastic parade through the aisles.… You get the idea.” And people once considered David Pountney’s 1983 ENO production controversial because, professor Timothy Cheek writes, it “portrayed a young girl’s dream, filled with sexual awakening”—rather tamely, by comparison.

 

Hit Tune   

Rusalka’s song to the moon is one of the blockbusters of opera, joining other famous numbers from relatively obscure works, such as “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles,and the flower duet from Delibes’s Lakmé. The opening melodies of the song to the moon are as gentle as the embrace of real moonlight, but it builds to a piercing climax of longing, until some anxious strings break it up so it can start all over again. It’s supremely pretty but also delicately apprehensive, and it frequently appeals to soundtrack editors: in Driving Miss Daisy, it’s employed during a montage to mark the wistful flow of time.

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The Performance We Wish We’d Seen   

In November 1975, weeks before the professional U.S. debut in San Diego, Juilliard presented what it thought was the first American staging—but U.S.C. Opera Theater had staged it more than a decade earlier. Even earlier, on March 11, 1955, Town Hall in New York hosted a concert performance. “We heard a delightful score, done with much sincerity and understanding that were contagious,” Olin Downes wrote—which sounds like a contagion we would have been delighted to catch.

 


Where It Is This Season   

Seven productions are scheduled through the summer, including four this month in locales as diverse as Beijing, Essen, Seoul and St. Petersburg. There’ll be a new production at the Met in February 2017. spacer 



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