In this instalment we take a look at Dvořák’s most popular opera Rusalka, a Glyndebourne classic.
A brief introduction:
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is still best known today as a symphonist. But this orchestral skill – an instinct for instrumental colour, for intricate, unexpected textures and late-Romantic music-drama – is at its most sophisticated in the composer’s most popular opera Rusalka, an adaptation of familiar fairytale The Little Mermaid.
Rusalka, a water-nymph, has fallen in love with a Prince, and asks witch Ježibaba to make her mortal, giving up her voice in return. The Prince returns Rusalka’s love, but her silence comes between them. Facing death and eternal damnation, will the lovers find their way back to one another, or will the obstacles just prove too great?
There’s an impressionistic quality to Dvořák’s score – a musical play of light and shade, a dappled, underwater beauty – that gives it its distinctive, dream-like atmosphere. There are hints of Wagner, of Debussy and Ravel, but these are blended with brightly coloured strands of Czech folk songs and dances, to create one of the 19th century’s most attractive, vividly dramatic scores.
You can find out more about the opera in this episode of our podcast:
Why not to miss it:
Praised by critics as ‘magnificent’, ‘breathtakingly theatrical’ and full of ‘zestful imagination’, Melly Still’s Rusalka is a Glyndebourne classic – a magical contemporary reimagining of a much-loved fairytale. Light and darkness, beauty and danger come together in this passionate tale of love against the odds.
At once evocative and unsettling, this production collides two contrasting worlds in Rae Smith’s elegant designs. Rusalka’s forest home is a dappled space of sunshine and shadows, full of strange woodland creatures, while the Prince’s court is a world of sleek modernity and sophistication – a world of man.
This Rusalka invites you to lose yourself in a fairytale fantasy, but one where the choices and consequences are very real. Explore ideas of desire and sensuality, love, jealousy and violence, emotions that sit just below the surface of us all.
A great moment to look out for:
Rusalka is an opera woven through with musical colour and melody – from the folk-inspired music of the wood nymphs, to the elegant, metropolitan dances of the Prince’s court. But there’s one moment that stands apart. Rusalka’s ‘Song to the Moon’ (Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém) is one of those perfect fusions of text, imagery and tune that has captured listeners’ imagination. Staged here with real visual magic by Melly Still and designer Rae Smith, it’s one of the loveliest, most beguiling moments of the opera.
Lying in her forest pool at dusk, Rusalka looks up into the sky. As she watches and luxuriates in the water, night falls and the light of the stars begins to shine through the canopy of trees as well of course as the moon, whose glow picks out the water nymph like a spotlight. Harp arpeggios ripple across the ear like moonlight on the water, and as Rusalka’s phrases reach ever upwards, they seem to be trying to grasp the light (and perhaps also the love) that is always just beyond her reach. A serene, exquisitely beautiful melody captures the tranquillity of the night, only disturbed by occasional harmonic shivers and flickers – hints of the tragedy to come.
Cast and Creative team:
Melly Still’s ‘spine-tingling’ Rusalka with its ‘brilliant stage-pictures’ by designer Rae Smith returns here for its third Festival revival, conducted for the first time by Glyndebourne’s own music director Robin Ticciati.
Two Glyndebourne favourites make their production debut here. Soprano Sally Matthews (praised for her ‘exquisite’ singing and ‘bravura’ performance as Konstanze in 2015’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail) takes the title role of water-nymph Rusalka, with mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon (a ‘deeply affecting’ Cornelia in 2018’s Giulio Cesare) as her nemesis, the witch Ježibaba.
Three rising young singers all make their Glyndebourne debuts in this revival. American tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson sings the role of the Prince, with Russian soprano Zoya Tsererina as Rusalka’s rival, the Foreign Princess. Belarusian bass Alexander Roslavets is Rusalka’s father, the water goblin Vodnik.
Image credits: Rusalka header, painted collage by Shadric Toop | Rusalka, Festival 2009, photos by Bill Cooper | Sally Matthews in Die Entführung aus dem Serail Festival 2015, photo by Richard Hubert Smith