Arizona Opera’s recent production prompts Carol Garrard to look beyond the fairy tale to historical events that likely inspired the composer and librettist. The Metropolitan’s production of Rusalka will be live in movie theaters on February 25.
In this age when opera directors feel free to impose their own “concept” on the work, it is delightful to see Joshua Borths’ sensitive staging of Rusalka penetrate to the core of this beautiful but puzzling opera. As we know, at the denouement, the Prince asks Rusalka for the kiss which will end his life. She gives it, knowing that the kiss condemns her to being one of the water beings who lure men to their death for eternity. However beautiful her last aria, the audience is left to wonder about a murder/suicide which brings down the curtain.
Borths set the opera in the last decade of the 19th century, in the Habsburg Empire. And when, in the second act, the Prince comes out, his costume gives us the key to solving the puzzle. He is dressed in a replica of the uniform of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rudolf had made the usual Habsburg dynastic marriage in 1881 to Princess Stephanie, daughter of the king of Belgium, who may have been homely but was the only Catholic princess available at the time. He promptly passed on his syphilis to her, and thus rendered her sterile (after giving him a daughter.) Now there could be no heir from this marriage, but the Emperor Franz Joseph and his lovely Empress, Elizabeth, refused to annul it, and meanwhile Rudolf cavorted with various ladies. Then he fell desperately in love with a 17 year old baroness, Marie Vetsera. He asked his parents to marry her; when they refused he became depressed and on January 30, 1889, the two drove to Mayerling, the imperial hunting lodge. After a lot of champagne, they entered into a suicide pact. Rudolf shot the young teenager, then spent the entire evening drinking brandy next to her dead body. In the early morning, while looking in the mirror, he shot himself in the head.
The Habsburg censorship, run by Count Eduard von Taaffe, decided how to handle this squalid event. First, it was announced that Rudolf had slain himself while the “balance of his mind was disturbed,” and alone. (The mental crisis was needed in order to bury him in consecrated ground. This meant concealing that he had asked his wife, the Princess Stephanie, to die with him earlier, and she as a devout Catholic had refused. He had also asked other women of Vienna to die with him, but only the teenage Marie Vetsera agreed.)
The “alone” part of this fiction was harder to arrange. By now, the press had gathered at Mayerling. Removing the body of Marie Vetsera was going to be difficult as she was in rigor mortis. her two uncles refused to have her spine and legs broken with an ax in order to fit her into a carriage. So they dressed her and walked her corpse between them to the carriage; the carriage left with the corpse appearing (at least from the view of the press) as a live baroness. She was then secretly buried in a Cistercian abbey. However the Habsburg censorship spun it, the truth was known to everyone in Vienna, and that means it was known to Antonín Dvořák.
Since no one would be allowed to depict these events on the stage, Dvořák used his genius to transform history’s straw into gold. He made it into a fairy tale, where the nameless Prince is the avatar of Crown Prince Rudolf—if not of his life, then the liberal ideas he had espoused. And Rusalka, beautiful Rusalka, embodies the pathetic and lovely young Marie Vetsera. As for the court in Rusalka, it embodies an Englishman’s description of the Viennese court of the 1890s, as “a population of dilettantes disposed to take nothing seriously except the present pleasure.”
Mayerling represents a concentrated projection in miniature of the decadence and stultification of the Habsburg dynasty by the end of the 19th century. The next heir to Franz Joseph’s throne would be Archduke Franz Ferdinand. His assasination in Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princep on June 28, 1914, would begin the fall of dominoes which led to the beginning of World War I. That was supposed to be the war to end war. Instead, after a pause of 20 years, it led to World War II. And you and I live with the aftermath of that conflict, whose origins lie in the distant events of January 30, 1889.
Dvořák was born in the Habsburg empire. His opera was written in 1901. Only two years before the premier of Rusalka, the lovely Empress Elizabeth had been assassinated by a terrorist as empty headed and deluded as Princep would be. Dvořák would die before the beginning of World War I, but he sensed already that the dynasty was both sclerotic and decadent. He spun that vision into beautiful music. One wonders if the original audience in Vienna, attired in their tiaras and gold braided uniforms, sensed what Dvořák did, that nihilism was lapping at their dancing feet. For Princep’s explanation for his murder of the archduke would eventually drown them as well. When the judge asked him what means he aimed to employ to accomplish his aim of freedom from Austria, he responded simply, “By terrorism.” I believe Dvořák’s opera, at its close, asks us to view our own world, and face that beneath its glittering surface, terror still lurks. Joshua Borths’ staging gives us the dark heart of the gorgeous music.