Rusalka and her New World
George Fleeton © 2013
‘I am a creature of the cool waters, and such passion is foreign to me …
All is in vain… neither a woman nor a nymph can I be’ (Act 2).
For Lyric Opera Productions’ Rusalka (Gaiety Theatre Dublin, September 18, 20 and 21) I was invited to write an article for the programme, which is reprinted here, with kind permission.
Since early 1996, Lyric Opera Productions has staged over twenty different works, in an output dominated by Verdi and Puccini.
On a few occasions, though, the company has stepped away from the established 18th-19th century Italianate repertoire.
Those segues have included single productions of The Magic Flute and Hänsel und Gretel some of whose characters, such as Queen of Night & Three Ladies, and Witch, Sandman & Dew Fairy, are distant cousins of Ježibaba & the three Water Sprites in Dvořák’s Rusalka.
So this production, sung in Czech, with new partners the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, represents a conscious, considerable and courageous strengthening of the objectives which Lyric Opera Productions has set for itself in recent years, principal of which are to diversify in order to create a wider audience base for opera, and to support its claim to be the only main-scale opera company in Dublin.
Rusalka is a rare bird, an endangered species, in these parts, and this is its first full staging ever, in Dublin, after 112 years.
There was a production at Wexford six years ago, in Johnstown Castle, just before the new opera house was commissioned, and at least two other, earlier Dvořák operas had surfaced in Wexford before that.
His fellow Czechs, Smetana and Janáček, have had some of their operas performed there too over the years, and even Dargomyzhsky’s much earlier and very rare Russian Rusalka was staged in Wexford in 1997.
As a prolific composer in the late Romantic tradition, Antonín Dvořák is much better known for his symphonic and chamber music than for his operas, of which there were ten composed, sporadically, between 1870 and his death in 1904.
Rusalka was the penultimate and it opened in Prague at the end of March 1901, two months after Verdi’s death.
The opera deals with Rusalka’s profound desire for love, what it means to be human – to love and to be loved – and her inability to understand or to integrate with a new world which will reject her.
None of the characters is designated with a proper name: a rusalka is a water nymph in the ancient folklore of the Czech lands; ježibaba means witch; vodník means water-goblin, and the Prince and the Foreign Princess are not formally named either.
The libretto is a dynamic and multi-layered piece in its own right.
Written by Jaroslav Kvapil, poet and playwright, he was on holiday in Denmark in 1899 when, reminded of his childhood and of Andersen’s tale of the little mermaid, he began to draft a Czech opera text, full of the symbolism and impressionism to be found in all his writing.
The first Rusalka was Růžena Maturovà, leading soprano at the National Theatre in Prague, who also created the title role of Armida in Dvořák’s final opera, about a month before he died.
Dvořák was born just north of Prague in what was then central Bohemia, and Moravian and Bohemian folk music, with its distinctive rhythms and melodic shapes which echo the speech melodies of the Czech language, underpinned his imagination right across his diversified body of work.
Dvořák didn’t live to see the formation of the independent republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918 but, like his two significant compatriots (all three had given the country its operatic voice), Bedřich Smetana (The Bartered Bride) and Leoš Janáček (Kát’a Kabanová), he had been involved in the nationalist movement – the Czech National Revival – that gradually wore down the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz Joseph I.
However the operas of Smetana and Janáček are today still better known and more frequently performed that those of Dvořák (who, ironically, wanted to be remembered as an opera composer) – with the notable exception of Rusalka which has achieved a special status on the stages of all the great opera houses, especially since its Vienna première in 1987.
In Puccini’s first opera Le Villi, the libretto was based – as was that of Adam’s ballet Giselle – on the vast central European folklore and legends of the vila, vengeful female supernatural entities, cursed in life never to have found true love, caught between life and death in limbo, and unable to rest in peace until they had lured young men to remote places at night and danced them to death.
In Le Villi, and in Giselle, both young women, Anna and Giselle, jilted and undead, force their respective lovers, Roberto and Albrecht, to dance to death, but with different outcomes.
Beyond opera, and closer to home, in Neil Jordan’s 2009 film Ondine, shot on the Beara peninsula in west Cork, a fisherman pulls a woman whom he believes is a vilaor selkie, from his nets, and sets in motion a very credible romantic tragedy.
Selkies, in our north-western European folklore, were water nymphs who shape-shifted to become young women on land for a short time before having to return to the sea.
In central Europe the ondines or rusalki lived in rivers and lakes and were known for their singing and dancing at night – whence the inspiration for this exceptional opera.
Lyric Opera’s next production is a one-off Gala Concert, on October 16 in Dublin at the National Concert Hall, to celebrate the birth of Verdi 200 years ago: details at:
The best of the Rusalka recordings, in my view, were both made by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra: Václac Neumann conducting Gabriela Beňačková (for Supraphon in 1983), and Charles Mackerras with Renée Fleming (for Decca in 1998).
In both of these sets I feel the musical depictions of atmosphere – the spirit world v. the mortal world – are outstanding.
The best book I’ve come across is Timothy Cheek’s Rusalka: a Performance Guide (which he dedicates to Renée Fleming).
Cheek’s accounts of interpretations of this opera, and of its long road to respectability, are engrossing.
Many opera-goers, he remarks, wonder why this masterpiece, so beloved at home, had to wait so long to gain an appreciative audience outside its borders.
In Rusalka, he adds, we can hear at once how the bright vowels and legato of Czech speech connect so immediately with Dvorak’s great lyricism.
Fleming will sing Rusalka in The Met: Live in HD series, transmitted to a cinema near you, on February 8th next: details at: