Lyric Opera of Chicago

RUSALKA: Dvořák’s darkly sensual fairytale

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 (mezzo-soprano 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.”