Sunday, February 26, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Raping Nature" (on Dvořák's Rusalka)

raping nature
by Douglas Messerli

Jaroslav Kvapil (libretto), Antonín Dvořák (composer), Mary Zimmerman (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Rusalka / 2017 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

I feel somewhat uncomfortable beginning an essay by talking about water sprites and a dangerous Water Gnome (Eric Owen), let alone focusing on the Gnome’s daughter, Rusalka (Kristine Opolais), who like H. C. Andersen’s famed little mermaid, having fallen in the love with the local Prince (Brandon Jovanovich), wants to be transformed to a human being. The witch Ježibaba (wonderfully performed by Jamie Barton), along with her rat, crow, and half-cat, are only too happy to provide her a potion, while assuring her that if he does not take her on as his lover, he will die and she will be permanently outcast from spirit world—oh, and she has to get him to love without the power of human speech. You might suspect that we are back in the “topsy-turvy” land of W. S. Gilbert instead of Antonín Dvořák’s early 20th century opera.

       But act two makes it clear, despite the fact that Rusalka hardly gets a chance to sing, that the heart of this opera is a bit closer to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and even, in parts, has more elements of the great Ring than of Hansel and Gretel.
        The Prince does indeed fall in love with the beautiful Rusalka, but given her muteness and her resistance to his kisses, has little choice but to keep another potential love on hand, in this case the Foreign Princess (Katarina Dalayman). The Princess, robed in colors of red, is all ego and fire, while the pale, white-robed Rusalka is as silent and cold as the moon with which she is associated.

        Most of act Two is played out in the form of an elaborate and erotically-charged Baroque-like series of dances (marvelously choreographed by Austin McCormick) which not only appall poor Rusalka but represent the antithesis of her spiritual existence. Indeed, during the first intermissions, singer Opolais described that performing Rusalka was a presentation of a soul rather than of a heart. In their elaborately brocaded costumes these dancers are almost entirely about frivolous flirtation and meaningless passion. 
        Worried for his daughter, the Water Gnome appears at the party to reassure her and argue for the necessity of winning over the Prince; yet his daughter can only see how things are. As director Mary Zimmerman suggested, no love can be consummated when one of the lovers is hiding her true identity, and is not allowed to express the truth.

       When the Prince finally determines to transfer his attentions to the Foreign Princess, he is rejected by both women, as Rusalka escapes her palace isolation and the Princess mocks the Prince’s sudden transformation.
        Act Three is simply—or maybe not so imply—a fulfilling of Ježibaba’s warnings. Poor Rusalka, wandering what is now a fallen world, is indeed frozen out of the world’s one-time beauty, yet refuses to possibly save herself by personally killing her former lover. 
      Unfortunately, in this last act the composer felt the need to wrap up everything by reintroducing nearly all of the opera’s characters, including the minor servants of Act Two, the dancing water sprites, Ježibaba and her consorts, and the Water Gnome before returning the bereaved and sorrowful Prince, who, even when he is told that kissing his former lover will mean his death, would prefer living with her in eternity than losing forever her embrace.
      Yet even their Tristan and Isolde moment does not release them, as her father explains; in his world there is no such thing as human sacrifice, only death. And, at opera’s end Rusalka, as promised, is now an eternal wanderer who cannot share in the spiritual nor the world of human passion.


It’s easy to imagine in this opera that the intruder is Rusalka, a thing of nature who insists upon entering the human world, destroying and being destroyed in the process. But the true barbarian, if we think more clearly, is the Prince, who takes up with the natural world only because of its beauty, without realizing that there are consequences for his conquering and then abandoning nature. In short, Rusalka might be read as a work in which mankind’s need to conquer the world around results in his own destruction—a highly prescient subject given our concerns today. 
      Despite conductor Sir Mark Elder’s long devotion to what he describes as a major opera, however, the very subject matter of Ruslka, particularly given its clotted last act, and its rough-hewn roots in folklore, make for a less profound experience that many great operas. Having said that, this work, and particularly the new MET production, with its numerous beautifully musical and dance moments, with lovely sets and costumes as well, help to reveal the opera's many charms—all of which the MET opera-goers, both inside the opera house itself and inside the movie theater in which I sat, highly appreciated.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2017

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