The Czech composer Antonin Dvorák’s best-known opera, the three-act Rusalka (1900), deals with the mysterious world of myth and fairytale. The themes are wide-ranging: love, restless wandering, death, and tormented erotic love.
While verismo (realism) was the stylistic calling card of the day among younger composers, Dvorák searched for and found the ideal libretto. It was presented to him by the 31-year-old playwright and poet, Jaroslaf Kvapil. Dvorák set Rusalka to music without requesting any changes.
The origins of Kvapil’s story were far removed from a Czech tradition. Foreign influences were the French legend of Melusine, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Gerhardt Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine.
Rusalka is filled with an aura of magical realism which keeps its grip on the audience from its opening scene, where three wood nymphs sing and dance, right up to its tragic end when unfulfilled love becomes the fate of both main protagonists – the love between the mermaid Rusalka and the Prince.
The story throughout its development has at least many layers that resonate.
We had to wait a very long time before the Metropolitan Opera’s star soprano, Renée Fleming, documented her signature role on HD film. She vocally might have lost some of her youthful expression, but her maturity of delivery in all other aspects is a matter of gain.
Her voice is creamy in tone, characterfully Slavonic without any sign of those countries’ sopranos’ tendency towards hooting or wobbling. In the mermaid’s famous aria, Invocation to the Moon, Fleming now projects a wider spectrum of emotions than just enchantment.
Piotr Beczala as the dreamy and lovelorn Prince, uses his by now extremely well projected tenor voice in a refined and clean manner. His often heroic tone suits the more dramatic moments ideally, with a timbre that becomes distinctive through his well-controlled, tight vibrato.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajik displays a consistent naturalness in the type of Slavonic tempera-ment which is essential to express the darker side of Jezibaba, the old witch who lives in a hidden hut in the swamps and together with Rusalka, casts a spell after the latter’s irrevocably taken decision. No one dares spoil its contents.
There’s a lot of vocal and physical energy in John Relyea’s portrayal of Rusalka’s father who is a watersprite. He also suggests some Wagnerian influences in Rusalka by the vocal overtones, reminding one of the Wagnerian character Alberich. This young man’s steady bass voice is an asset.
Otto Schenk’s production has “old world” written all over it, with characters well exposed within a kind of story book ambiance. Günther Schneider-Siemsen’s design has not dated, has a picture-postcard beauty about it and, literally, a dash of Disney. It’s somewhat strange that in Rusalka’s first appearance we see her in a fork of a large tree.
Musically this Rusalka reflects the dramatic sensitivities of its composer. The Canadian-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a fantastic grasp on the dynamic richness of the score, its beauty and refinement, but also its mysterious darker elements.
• Rusalka is presently screening at all Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.