OGSA’s president Carol Garrard gives the story of Dvořák’s dark fairy-tale opera, which we are previewing on November 9 and 11, 2016.
If you took your children or grandchildren to Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and are hoping to replicate that experience with more elegant singing—well, Rusalka is not the opera for you.
The ninth of Antonín Dvořák’s ten operas, it alone has entered the repertoire. It contains one of opera’s greatest hits, Rusalka’s beautiful Act I “Song to the Moon,” with its haunting glissando string motif. There is a great deal of other beautiful music in this fairy tale made into opera, but its ending of doom for both the eponymous heroine and her lover is dark indeed.
Rusalka is based on Czech and German folk tales that have often ‘surfaced’ in literature, opera and ballet. A notable example is the novella Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. (See the illustration at right by J.W. Waterhouse.) In Fouqué’s story the water nymph gets her legs, and she gets her man too. Yes, he betrays her, but they are reunited in love, and as the curtain goes down, they die in each other’s arms.
Rusalka has an altogether more troubling denouement. The plot is that of the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal she has seen at her lake, and as this is opera, naturally he is a prince. The witch Ježibaba allows her to become human to wed her prince, but utters two conditions: Rusalka must remain forever silent to the prince, and he must always remain true. Should either condition be broken, both will be damned. Naturally, Rusalka and the prince fall madly in love and the first act ends.
The second act has a mute Rusalka, plotted against by an evil foreign princess, who convinces the Prince to reject poor Rusalka. Well, what about the poor soprano in this act? Renee Fleming, the foremost Rusalka of our time, asks in her autobiography (The Inner Voice: the Making of a Singer, p. 186) how is one to express despair here, since “…performing an act without singing seemed at first to be comparable to a violinist’s performing a concert without a violin.” Fleming managed to solve the problem by working intensively with choreographers for this act. This meant finding a physical language where face and body must substitute for sound. This compounds the demands on the soprano exponentially.
But it sets up the audience for a thriller, however dark, of a third act ending. Rusalka is crushed by the Prince’s rejection, but she refuses the witch’s offer to save herself by killing the Prince. Repentant, the Prince returns to the lake looking for Rusalka. She explains her silence, and warns him that now her kiss would cost him his life. He urges her to free them both, and they kiss. The Prince dies, and Rusalka returns to the water forever.
Fleming goes on to say, “At the heart of Rusalka are the themes of love and redemption . . . but one has to ‘dive’ in to find the opera’s meaning. Rusalka swears she will not kill her love, and yet she does so with a kiss, because he begs her to. He wants release from the shame and pain he has caused her, in the form of death. She asks God to take his beautiful human soul and returns to her own infinite, dark existence, to the tune of one of the most beautiful postludes in the entire operatic repertoire.”
This is certainly true, but the ending has Rusalka neither dying nor going back to just being a water nymph. She is condemned to spend eternity as a demon of the depths, emerging only to seduce men to their death. The world of the spirit, however glittering, is too ethereal to join with the “too too solid flesh” of the human existence.