For a part-time fancier like me Czech composer Antonin Dvorak‘s Rusalka is one of those problem operas where the best bit – soprano water sprite Rusalka’s Song to the moon aria, asking the moon to tell the human prince of her love – occurs half way through the first act. It’s such a sublime piece of music – both song and orchestral setting – that unless there’s something special about the production everything else that follows can be an anti-climax. But when I say the next best bit of the Glyndebourne on Tour (GoT) show was when it finished I’m not being entirely facetious, because there was some decent stuff in between and the ending is indeed a lovely piece of work, beautifully handled here.
Nevertheless, this is the first GoT productions I’ve not come out saying, still surprising myself, Yes, I really enjoyed that. For why? Maybe I’m moving into the next phase of my opera-going evolution. Up to now knowing the plot in advance has been an essential part of the experience, of escaping incomprehension and debilitating WTF? moments. I mean, I know it was going to end badly (most operas do) and maybe not knowing precisely how might have meant I could have been more caught up in the drama. Except the Prince, for whose love the water sprite Rusalka gives up the idyllic life she knows and is changed into a human being, had all the charisma of a slightly portly middle-aged stand up comedian without the jokes. What is it about not tucking your shirt in even when wearing a suit? (A query that obviously applies to life in general rather than just the love rat here). So the costumes were all over the place and I just didn’t get a lot of the choreography. Like the wood nymphs – I couldn’t quite decide whether or not their costumes were meant to reference Grease, and as for that dance where they all bounced up and down like string puppets holding their breasts – WTF?
I had to wonder why that sublime Song to the moon was delivered by the singer lying on her back while we didn’t actually get to see a moon, just an unspectacular light shining down (or does that answer the question?). Normally the imaginative sets and settings of GoT knock me out but the real thing outside in the cold after was far superior. I did like the water sprites’ tails though, an impressive sight; the choreography of underwater movement worked too. And Jezibaba, the witch as stocky shaman-next-door in peasant garb was a nice touch. So we’ll call the set and costumes a score draw. The stage ‘business’ that is almost a signature pleasure of a GoT production only really got going with the below stairs wedding preparations and was a cartoon distraction at other times, particularly at the actual wedding, while someone was surely having a laugh with Rusalka’s wedding dress – or I missed the symbolism altogether.
In essence Rusalka is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The little mermaid made darker with an injection of Czech folklore. It’s visits the highs and the barbaric and venal lows of human existence. After all she has sacrificed and gone through Rusalka is still thankful for having experienced human love her loving of and being loved by the prince with no name, commending his soul even as, back in the lake, she gives him the kiss of death. I winced at some of her high notes – not I hasten to say because she was a bad singer or missing her notes and certainly not in that song – but because such (to me) caterwauling is one of the things I still find hard to take in opera. The orchestra was great; the music a mix of the lyrical folky New-World-Symphony Dvorak and, less attractively, at moments of great doom or drama, proto-modernist East European bombast. It’s all relative though. I’d still rather see GoT’s Rusalka again (and it does linger) than the vast majority of West End musicals that take up a lot of Milton Keynes Theatre’s stage time.
If you rock and rollers out there don’t know Song to the moon (aka O silver moon) there are plenty of renditions in YouTube or Spotify. Just put ‘rusalka moon’ in the search box. It’s one of my certs for when Kirsty finally asks me to do Desert Island Discs (putting me in with Nicole Kidman, Vince Cable and – slightly jumping the gun – soprano Renee Fleming herself among others). The version I’ve liked best in a brief perusal of the runners and riders lately is Renée Fleming, appropriately performing live at the 20th Anniversary Concert of the Czech Velvet Revolution in Prague in 2009. Go be moved.
First I ever heard of the song was a report some years ago from a friend telling of the aftermath of a post-match volunteer staff drinking the dregs beer festival de-briefing. Someone managed to put Song to the moon on the hi-fi and one hardened yeoman of the ale not known for his shows of emotion just burst into tears. It’s a divine piece of music.