Dvořák’s darkly sensual fairytale
by Roger Pines
We’re aware of certain rarely-performed operas solely because
of one particular aria that has captivated audiences everywhere.
For years in this country that was the case with Dvořák’s
Rusalka, thanks to the heroine’s exquisite “Song to the Moon.”
For most audiences the complete opera remained a mystery.
Fortunately, the tide has turned for Rusalka: major opera
companies, both here and abroad, stage it more frequently these
days, which means that audiences are repeatedly declaring,
“Where has this gorgeous
opera been all our lives?”
This season Lyric audiences will
have their chance to discover Rusalka
in its long-awaited company premiere.
A breathtaking new production will
be conducted by Lyric music director
Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Sir
David McVicar, with sets designed by
John Macfarlane – the team that brought
us last season’s acclaimed Elektra.
Dvořák’s heroine, the water nymph
Rusalka (soprano Ana María Martínez),
falls in love with a prince (tenor Brandon
Jovanovich). Despite the apprehension
of her father, the water goblin or Vodník
(bass-baritone Eric Owens), she implores
the forest witch, Ježibaba (mezzo-soprano
Jill Grove), to transform her into a human
woman. The price is that whenever Rusalka
is with him (or any other human being),
she will lose her power to speak. And if the
man she loves betrays her, she and he will
both be damned forever. In human form,
Rusalka entrances the Prince, who hopes
to marry her. When her continuing silence
alienates him, he transfers his attentions
to an imperious foreign princess (mezzosoprano
Ekaterina Gubanova, debut).
Ježibaba informs the desperately unhappy
Rusalka that she can save herself only
by killing the Prince, but Rusalka would
rather suffer in despair for eternity. The
Prince’s realization of his true feelings
leads him back to Rusalka, who lets him
know that her kiss will be fatal. When
he insists, she kisses him, and he dies
peacefully. Hoping that God will have
mercy on his soul, she returns to the water.
This opera, says McVicar, is “a fairytale
for adults, profoundly sad and tragic.”
The vision he and Macfarlane have for
the piece takes its cue in part from the
powerfully dramatic German Romantic
artists of the 1860s and 1880s. It’s “a spooky,
dark, sinister world in which the Prince
dreams Rusalka, or summons her into
existence. We’re playing him as a romantic
fantasist, like Bavaria’s King Ludwig II.
He’s a hunter, and what he’s doing to the
forest is a good analogy to what happens
to Rusalka.” The theme of man destroying
nature runs through the opera, McVicar
explains. “In his longing to commune with
nature, the Prince finds himself creating
Rusalka almost as a necessity.” At the
end of the opera, “Rusalka fades away
into nature, and the Prince, after
annihilating himself with her kiss, finds
the peace with nature that he’s been
seeking as a character all the way through.”
The costumes by Moritz Junge
(debut) place the work in the 1870s, the
era of famously extravagant Ludwig
himself. The sets by Macfarlane present
a romantic forest and a pond, “but a
dam has been built – nature has been
violated,” says McVicar. The Act-Two ball
scene is moved from the Prince’s palace
to a hunting lodge somewhat resembling
Queen Victoria’s famous retreat at
Balmoral, “an impressive, sinister place.
The architecture of the Prince’s world is
Gothic, like Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein
castle.” The Prince’s guests are “high
Gothic/heavy Victorian. It’s a hot, stuffy,
oppressive society – the most uncongenial
environment possible for Rusalka.”
McVicar is entranced by Dvořák’s
music, as is Sir Andrew Davis, who
has triumphed leading this work at the
Metropolitan Opera, Glyndebourne, and
Barcelona. “I’m so excited about bringing
Rusalka to Lyric,” says the conductor.
“This is simply one of the most beautiful
scores of any romantic opera.” Ana
María Martínez agrees, noting that “the
principals and supporting characters all
have their own color, their own mood, their
own story to tell.” Brandon Jovanovich
finds that “musically it’s such a rich
tapestry of so many different sounds, in
which the emotions are intertwined.”
Besides the “Song to the Moon,”
Rusalka has two more arias, each deeply
moving. There are fabulous opportunities
for the other principals, plus an orchestral
role exhibiting Dvořák’s dazzling skill
and imagination. In this piece, by far
the most celebrated of his ten operas,
the composer often colors the drama
with somber and occasionally ominous
qualities. At the same time, Rusalka reveals
the essence of romantic longing with
incomparable depth and truthfulness.
Whatever resemblance Jaroslav Kvapil’s
libretto bears to Hans Christian Andersen’s
“The Little Mermaid” is evident only in
the basic idea of a water creature in love
with a human being and her refusal to kill
him to end her own suffering. The rusalky
can be found in Czech mythology – water
nymphs who in life had been young women
who committed suicide after being jilted
by their lovers. Now they lure young men
who pursue them and are drawn into
the water, only to die in their embrace.
Premiered in Prague in 1901, during its
first half-century Rusalka was heard there
more than 600 times. Internationally there
were some important productions, but
very sporadically (the U. S. professional
premiere in San Diego came only in 1975).
New interest in Rusalka has been aroused
by Renée Fleming’s performances as the
heroine in many major houses over the
past two decades.
Ana María Martínez and Brandon
Jovanovich, who triumphed together
starring in Rusalka at Glyndebourne, create
an extraordinary chemistry onstage in this
opera. Martínez describes how her tenor
colleague’s eyes “lock in with yours. A
space is created in which you can give with
complete abandon, and the two characters
have this journey together.” Jovanovich
responds in kind: “Ana is able to give so
much onstage, which makes it so much
easier to give back. The two of us really feed
off each other’s energy and emotions.”
Jovanovich speaks of the Prince as “all
guns blazing, right from the start. I really
enjoy the aria in his first scene, for which
you need power and lyricism.” There’s a
high C in the final scene, “but it’s not a big
bravado moment! It’s a sweet whispering,
but most people don’t sing it with any
degree of love.” The tenor admits that, with
the Prince’s rejection of Rusalka, it’s tough
for him to earn the audience’s sympathy,
“but I think in the last act they’re easily
able to forgive him, given the emotions
emerging through the music and the text.”
Whenever Dvořák’s heroine comes
to her mind, “I think of the purest
form of love in all its capacities,” says
Martínez. “Rusalka loves life and
she loves the concept of a soul, which
also implies tremendous spirituality.
She loves all that is living, vibrant,
creative, and inspiring.” This character
takes a real emotional journey “from
pre-adolescence to adolescence to
womanhood, always maintaining her
love. She reaches womanhood in her
ability to forgive the Prince at the end.”
Martínez hopes Lyric audiences will
relish Rusalka’s “world of magic and
mystery.” Through Dvořák’s genius, not
just the beauty of that world but “the
vulnerability, the passion, the rawness
– everything is there. It’s glorious
and spiritual and loving all in one.”
Jovanovich’s goal is for listeners to come
away from the opera house thinking,
“That’s one of the most memorable
nights I will ever have in my life.”
Soprano Ana María Martínez, who will sing the title role in Lyric's 2013-14 production of Dvořák's Rusalka, answers Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines's questions about the character.
RP:You sang your first Rusalka at Glyndebourne in 2009, and later reprised the role in Munich. Had it occurred to you to sing this opera before it was first offered to you?
AMM: Not right away. I always thought it was a bit too full, more for a lirico spinto. You have to have the vocal range to do it. There are scenes that are actually bigger than Madama Butterfly vocally – the finale with the Prince, for example. The role itself was always in my mind as very beautiful, something one would love to portray onstage. I’ve always erred on the conservative side regarding what I sing. I think it’s served me well to wait until later in my career before singing Rusalka.
RP: Had you ever seen the opera onstage before, or listened to anything in the piece besides Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”?
AMM: I’d listened to it, but not with the ears of learning it. I knew parts of it, and when I was studying at Juilliard we listened to portions of it. But you listen differently when you’re going to learn a role. I’ll put it to you this way: When you’re in the passenger’s seat of a car and you’re looking at the scenery—“Isn’t this nice?” But if it’s a route that’s new to you, unless you’ve actually driven there and have the perspective of the driver, you look at it differently.
RP: How did you respond to Rusalka as a whole the first time you saw or heard it?
AMM: I felt inspired but also emotionally exhausted by Rusalka’s journey. In a good way—I have to emphasize that! It’s a cathartic experience that you have when you listen to this piece. I also felt, “Wow, I really, really hope I can do this and do it well.” When I was learning it, it felt like such a tremendous and wonderful undertaking, but wow! What a mountain to climb, on every level.
As with all roles, vocally you eventually figure out what you need to do in this piece. I was lucky to have seven weeks of rehearsal when I was doing it for the first time at Glyndebourne, but the work there quickly shifted into the emotional mountain I needed to climb. I wanted to try as honestly as I could to walk in Rusalka’s shoes. The journey she undertakes is really tremendous.
RP:What do you consider this opera’s greatest strengths?
AMM: Several things come to mind. Beginning with the very first notes in the orchestra, Dvořák is able to create an incredible atmosphere—it’s quickly established and it remains present throughout. You’re in another world, and it’s an enchanted world. I think you can tell when you’re on land and when you’re in the water—you hear it in the music! Everything is stated so clearly. The principals and supporting characters all have their own color, their own mood, their own story to tell.
Of course, the story has to do with love, but it has to do with the journey toward becoming. Rusalka wants to be human and, more than anything, she wants a soul – she’ll sacrifice whatever it takes to have that. The core of this piece is that quest, that desire, that journey. Even though I think I’m a pretty courageous, gutsy lady, Rusalka has far more courage than I could ever have. To step in her shoes makes me grow. My hope is that all of us – the entire cast, the company, and the audience – will take this journey with Rusalka.
So there’s the story itself, but then there’s the emotional journey that’s supported through the music – and it’s heartbreaking. There’s the scene where she’s pleading with Ježibaba to make her human. She’s trying everything, and Ježibaba is so cold! “Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes, little girl – do you know what you’re asking?” That is a phenomenal scene.
For me, what is the most touching and I think will have the audience sobbing is Rusalka’s duet with the Prince in the last act. Dvořák could have written it fortissimo – Rusalka could have yelled at the Prince, “Why did you lie to me? Why did you say you loved me when you didn’t? Why?”—but it’s with the quietest of dynamics, the quietest orchestration. And then there is the very end of the opera, when it’s clear that Rusalka is destined for the worst type of existence – she’s neither dead nor alive. Anyone would wish death over what she has to endure for eternity – but this is expressed in such a quiet way.
RP: The emotional content of what Rusalka expresses in the final scene is actually pretty intense and complex.
AMM: We see in that scene that Rusalka doesn’t understand human passion. You feel she desires the Prince, but she’s incapable of completing that part of her woman-ness. It’s like when a girl is 13 or 14, she has a crush and dreams of being in the arms of the boy she has a crush on. She fantasizes, but when she’s in the moment, it’s “What do I do here?” Talk to anyone who had their first experiences with romance when they were quite young – it usually wasn’t great! They fantasize, but then it’s scary and they don’t know what to do. Perhaps if Rusalka were given the chance to go a little slower, she could warm up to that. But she’s doing this for the first time, and she’s out of her element, away from her whole support system – she’s been ostracized. Obviously she’s intelligent, her mind is constantly going, and the way she puts thoughts into words is tremendous, but she’s probably just freaking out! This also makes me think that the Prince is impatient and wants passion from her right away.
RP: Beyond what you’ve just discussed, what matters the most to you in your characterization?
AMM: When I think of Rusalka I just think of absolute, pure love, as much as we can fathom what that is. Love comes in all sorts of forms, and sometimes we have ulterior motives when we feel we love someone or want something. But if we were to think of the purest form of love in all its capacities, that to me is Rusalka. That is difficult to physicalize onstage. She loves life and she loves the concept of a soul, which also implies tremendous spirituality. She loves all that is living, vibrant, creative, and inspiring. She’s idealistic in that way. I think of her as this bright light, and profound. Here’s someone who is just all heart, with this being around it. That is her truth, where she gets her strength, her courage, her passion. We actually see her journey from pre-adolescence to adolescence to womanhood, always maintaining her love. She becomes a full woman in the confrontation with the Prince at the end. She reaches womanhood there, and in her ability to forgive the Prince at the end. That to me is love in all its facets, with the risk that comes with it. If you think of the definition of courage as being terrified by going through with it anyway, she was so sure she’d have nothing to lose in this venture, and she was losing from the get-go. Still, she remains steadfast. The witch gives her an out: “If you make sure that that man’s blood is shed, the curse will be lifted and you can go back to your life,” and Rusalka says, “Rather than cause him such harm, I welcome that terrible sentence you’ll have me undergo for the rest of my existence” – that existence being, in effect, living death. She takes responsibility for her choices, and always – even in such pain – she stands for love.
RP:What’s the toughest place emotionally in the role?
AMM: What really gets me is when her sister water-nymphs come back in Act Three. Their words rip her to shreds. There are performances when I’m sobbing at the end of that. It’s so powerful – that’s Rusalka’s rock-bottom.
RP:And what’s the most challenging portion of singing this music?
AMM: The challenge comes when you’ve been quiet for so long. Remember, in Act Two, until the scene with her father, she’s unable to speak. He emerges, and suddenly she’s singing the aria to him. That’s the tough one vocally – it’s quite dramatic. Vocally speaking you have to be very grounded and not let the rage of the moment get in the way.
RP:This opera has one of the greatest final scenes in the entire operatic repertoire. What makes it so exceptional?
AMM: Musically speaking it’s paced to show the journey of emotions in that confrontation between Rusalka and the Prince. She believes he lied to her, and now she’s genuinely asking, “Why did you do this? I really want to know.” In terms of the emotions, what makes it so extraordinary is that you’re able to have full closure in that dialogue. You can also express ultimate vulnerability and ultimate sacrifice. How many of us have had tremendous life-changing relationships that have ended, in which we’ve been betrayed and yet have not had the opportunity for that closure and that confrontation and honoring what there was at one point? In Rusalka this is depicted in the most human, honest, and fulfilling way. It really does show that type of need, which all of us have. On top of that, you add how it’s set musically – and the ultimate sacrifice that takes place. After he’s sacrificed himself, even though she didn’t want him to, she’s able to bless him. The whole scene is tremendous.
RP:How does it feel to play an otherworldly creature?
AMM: First of all, her inner world is so rich in many ways, and I can identify with her dream-like thinking. I was very much like that as a child and teenager—I would escape a lot from the stresses of life. My parents are wonderful people, but they divorced when I was young. I was an only child, uprooted from Puerto Rico to New York City. Like many kids who undergo something like that, I’d just retreat to an inner fantasy world quite often. Rusalka’s thinking is quite infantile in that way, but we see how real she actually is when, in Act Two, she’s forced to enter a harsh human reality. How cruel that is! We’ve seen the cruelty of her father ostracizing her, saying, “Your only hope is to ask Jezibaba to make you human, and if you do that, good luck, I’m through with you, you’re banned forever from our world and will lose everything.” And she did, so she experiences abandonment and then cruelty, and has to fend for herself. She has to grow up pretty fast! Even though she’s from another world, she actually ends up being more of this world than anyone could be. Someone who comes from a different culture going into a new culture, another country, another way of thinking, can go through the same thing. So I think we can identify with her. I can’t just “put on” an emotion like wearing a jacket; I have to find my resources of personal experience and knowledge in order to portray her in an honest way.
As far as movement onstage in the role is concerned, I do have ballet training, although when I began rehearsing this role, I hadn't danced in a while. I looked in the mirror and said, “OK, I’ve got some work to do.” I changed my eating habits that day! During those seven weeks of rehearsal I was working with the dancers on a daily basis for at least an hour, while getting reacquainted with my body from a dancer’s perspective. By the time we opened, I was physically aware in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. In the scenes where Rusalka is silent, you need your body language more than ever. That’s where the tools of dancer training come in so handy. You really need to physicalize what she’s feeling. Since that production I’ve stayed in good shape – I’m a runner now, and I’m doing that to be able to add more physicality to my roles. That’s the demand of reality that we all face in the business now. I don’t know what David McVicar will have us do in his concept, but I’m prepared! I’m keeping up the running and working out and strengthening exercises so I can lend my body to what is necessary for the production.
RP: At Lyric you’ll reprise your stage partnership with Brandon Jovanovich, who sang the Prince opposite you at Glyndebourne. The two of you were able to achieve a marvelous chemistry in your scenes together.
AMM: Brandon has so many wonderful qualities as a human being and as an artist. In any role he comes first and foremost from his acting background, and he’s a very honest interpreter. When he comes into a rehearsal and onto the stage, he leaves Brandon at the door, and by the time he starts he is that character. He presents the energy and the thought, the emotions, and the body language completely. Mostly, though, he does it through his eyes -- they lock in with yours. I feel that he’s telling me volumes through his eyes, but he’s also respectful that this is our craft. I’m seeing the eyes of the Prince, which invites me to do the same with my character. A space is created in which you can give with complete abandon, and the two characters have this journey together. We both understand that we’re there to serve the story and the music. If we do our part with complete abandon, it will be that much richer for the audience. Brandon isn’t distracted – you know, “Here comes this vocal phrase,” or “I have to go over here and grab this.” Plus he’s also very caring, very attuned to what you need onstage, and I tend to be that way as well. It’s just the right fit as far as establishing that safety and trust – we’re always discovering something new. My background is also first in drama, in acting, so we know that about each other, so we can just go there. He’s inviting you to take that journey, and it’s a joy to do that with him.
RP: You’re also renewing your collaboration with Sir Andrew Davis, which was so rewarding in Lyric Opera’s production of Faust.
AMM: He’s so gifted, so musical, and so knowledgeable. I felt really taken care of throughout that entire experience. He’s so warm, gentle, and also at the same time beautifully demanding in what we’re there to do. He loves what he’s doing. When we’ve talked about Rusalka and how excited we are to do it, I’ve seen that joy in him. He’s also watching out for us at every moment. Sometimes these pieces have tremendous demands on us, but I feel he’s very attuned to what our needs are. In addition to his tremendous musical excellence and rich knowledge, he’s also a very caring conductor. I’m really looking forward to this experience with him.
RP:This will be your first time working with Sir David McVicar.
AMM: I’ve heard that he has a tremendously creative mind and wants to try all sorts of things. Very much an out-of-the-box thinker. I met him at Glyndebourne, and when he saw our production of Rusalka there he said to me, “Oh, good—you want to play. You’ll try anything!” I’m excited about that kind of energy, and the desire to try all sorts of things to get the story told.
RP:What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing and hearing Rusalka in the theater?
AMM: I want them to relish the experience of having entered a world of magic and mystery – a world that is so instantly and warmly defined. Through Dvořák’s music and his storytelling, you feel it’s OK to have this fantasy, OK to enter this scary but marvelous world. You never leave it until the piece is over. The beauty of it, the vulnerability, the passion, the rawness – everything is there. It’s glorious and spiritual and loving all in one.
Pictured above: Soprano Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Glyndebourne's 2009 production. (Photo: Bill Cooper, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.)
On the Record
Roger Pines, dramaturg, and Jesse Gram, audience education manager at Lyric Opera, recommend these recorded performances:
Fleming, Urbanová, Zajick, Heppner, Hawlata; Kuh Mixed Choir, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Mackerras. (Decca)
Martínez, Pavlovskaya, Diadkova, Jovanovich, Schelomianski; Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic, cond. Belohlavek (Glyndebourne)
Benačková, Drobková, Soukopová, Ochman, Novak; Prague Philharmonic Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Neumann. (Supraphon)
Nylund, Magee, Remmert, Beczala, Held; Chorus of the Vienna Staatsoper, Cleveland Orchestra, cond. Welser-Möst. (Orfeo)
Barker, Whitehouse, Owens, La Spina, Martin; Opera Australia Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Hickox. (Chandos -- SUNG IN ENGLISH)
Of special historical interest
Sbrtová, Ovcacikova, Zidek, Haken; Chorus and Orchestra of the Prague National Theater, cond. Chalabala (Supraphon)
Fleming, Urbanová, Diadkova, Larin, Hawlata; Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris, cond. Conlon, dir. Carsen. (Arthaus Musik)
Opolais, Krasteva, Baechle, Vogt, Groissböck; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, cond. Hanus, dir. Kušej. (Kultur)
Hannan, Cannan, Howard, Treleaven, Bayley; English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Elder, dir. Pountney. (Kultur – SUNG IN ENGLISH)