Glyndebourne has just ended its 2019 season with a radical version of The Magic Flute (is there any other kind, these days?) as the climax of its interesting, themed programme of fairy tale operas. In fact, since it includes Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, which is scarcely a fairy tale, and Handel’s Rinaldo, which is set in the Crusades, it might be better described as a season of operas in which the supernatural intervenes in the action. Massenot’s Cendrillon earlier in the season is perhaps the only fairy tale – Fairy Godmother saves heroine from humiliation at the hands of ugly stepsisters – in the usual sense in which we use the term.
Rusalka is different again, a folk tale which concerns the interaction between the human world and that of creatures of the water. It has much in common with Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid; both Dvorák and his librettist were aware of these stories, though the opera is in fact the culmination of the composer’s lifelong fascination with Czech folk tales, particularly as collected and written up by Karol Jaromír Erben. Before tackling Rusalka, Dvorák had produced four superb symphonic poems inspired by Erben’s folk tales – most of them deal with the supernatural.
But there are other influences at work, too. Surprisingly, this most genial and seemingly homespun of composers was, on his own admission, deeply in thrall to Wagner’s music; he had, in his early days as a violist in Prague in the 1860s, played under the great man, and adored him ever after. Wagner happened to have been re-reading Undine just before he died, identifying the water-nymphs with his own Rhinemaidens; Rusalka is the Dvorák work in which Wagner’s influence is clearest, not only in the wonderful evocation of the watery world that dominates act one, but in the ingenious use of motifs, especially those associated with the heroine herself.
It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, his most successful opera and his only successful opera internationally. It has a unity and a cumulative power that the others lack despite containing – it is almost unnecessary to say with this composer – a great deal of attractive music. The score is highly dramatic, if not always instinctively theatrical: one might have expected, for example, a musical gesture to accompany what should surely be the electrifying moment when the witch Ježibaba turns Rusalka into a human being – but nothing very much happens. Imagine what Wagner would have made of that.
But the opera is full of ravishing music – an early highlight is the famous act one aria in which the water nymph asks the moon to bring her a human lover. Despite being warned that when she becomes human, she will lose the power of speech and the man she loves will die unless he loves her too, she proceeds with her trans-species dream. The prince of the realm sees her, transformed, on a hunting trip, and is smitten, sweeping her up for his bride.
The consequences of this are revealed in the remarkable second act, which makes the extraordinary demand of the lead singer that she be silent through much of it. To this, Sally Matthews as Rusalka rises with thrilling histrionic power, physicalising her desperation with heartbreaking intensity though a series of court dances of almost Tchaikovskian brilliance, performed with aplomb by the London Philharmonic under Robin Ticciati. The woodwind writing is outstanding, no surprise from the pen of one of the greatest of wind serenades, and the LPO’s principals relish it. The Prince is superbly realised by the young American singer Evan LeRoy Johnson, who has the demeanour of a sun-kissed, hirsute Prince William. Bewildered by Rusalka’s silence and lack of warmth, he flirts furiously with a foreign princess. Shattered, Rusalka returns to her father in the forest by the river; the Prince follows her. This last act echoes Wagner in a devastating Liebestod; destiny – or is it love itself? – has claimed them both.
It is a compelling and a haunting fable in which the troubled hero, as in Swan Lake, is drawn to a non-human creature in his quest for some kind of redemption. Still under the spell of Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking The Uses of Enchantment (1976), directors routinely stage such stories by making their implications explicit. Director Melly Still – who has devoted a great deal of her career to staging folk tales, from Tales of Ovid to Beasts and Beauties, taking in Watership Down along the way – will have none of this. Folk tales, she insists, emanate from the collective subconscious and they take us back there. Still’s water nymphs sportively flaunting their immense tails, her catwalk strewn with red roses endlessly trampled underfoot, her sprites doing a hoedown, joyously jiggling their bubbies, and her cruel haute couture Foreign Princess speak to something deep in our imaginations, just as they did to Dvorák’s. This is the production’s second revival. Long may it weave its spell.
Rusalka runs until 21 August
Glyndebourne, East Sussex
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation