For decades Antonin Dvorák´s "Rusalka" was one of the operas in the wish list of many addicts to the genre but it remained unpremièred. The long wait has finally ended: Buenos Aires Lírica has presented it as the last title of its season, and in Czech, as it should be.
In fact, I am privy to an information that wasn´t public: in 1973 Antonio Pini (Artistic Director) planned to offer it in a Spanish translation at the Colón (the breakthrough for a Czech opera in the original language came later, with Janácek´s "The Makropoulos case", in 1986). As Pini was unceremoniously kicked out as Artistic Director in August of that same year, the project went down the drain.
Well, when Pini had that good idea it was because he had lived several years in Prague as a diplomat and had seen the Czech repertoire at the Národni Divadlo (National Theatre, where "Rusalka" had been premièred in 1901). And it was there that I saw it in April 1967, and soon after bought the Supraphon recording conducted by Zdenek Chalabala. Later there were notable recordings led by Neumann with Benacková (1983) and Mackerras with Fleming (1998); the latter had wide repercussion and led to DVDs that have remained as a reference, and Fleming sang it at the Met. So nowadays "Rusalka" ´s battle is won internationally.
Dvorák´s operas have been internationally neglected except "Rusalka". Well, those I know I like and enjoy: "Dmitrij", on the usurper that would replace Boris Godunov as Czar; "Jakobin", a very agreeable comedy; and "The Devil and Kate", where Kate is so obnoxious that the Devil throws her out of Hell...
Dvorák defines "Rusalka" as a "lyrical fairy-tale", and that´s what it is. The librettist Jaroslav Kvapil had plenty to inspire him in tales by La Motte-Fouqué ("Undine", 1811), Andersen ("The little mermaid", 1836) and Hauptmann ("The sunken bell", 1897), as well as by the style of an important Czech writer, Karel Erben. In fact, Erben´s tales inspired the four late Dvorák tone poems, little-known here but very much worthwhile; written in 1896, two have titles related to "Rusalka": "The Water-Goblin" and "The Noon Witch".
As it happens, the tragic destiny of the naiad that wanted to be human has inspired many operas, unfortunately not premièred here: E.T.A. Hoffmann´s and Lortzing´s "Undine" (plus a destroyed "Undine" by Tchaikovsky!). Dargomizhsky´s "Russalka" and Respighi´s "La campana sommersa". There are also ballets such as Henze´s "Undine".
Kvapil´s libretto has a hard-to-accept premise: that the Prince will accept as consort a woman that is mute and doesn´t respond to his kisses merely because her looks and eyes fascinate him. Or that Rusalka will go ahead knowing the witch Jezibaba´s two strictures: that the humanized naiad won´t be able to speak with the humans, and that the Prince will die if he deceives her. Nevertheless, the text is often poetic and the conflict between the water world and humanity is clearly expressed, especially by the Water-Sprite (Vodnik), who so often exclaims "Woe! Poor Rusalka!". And the Foreign Princess, the Prince´s lover, represents passion and spite.
Dvorák´s music is often fresh and inspired, and not just in the only famous fragment, the Moon aria. He does have a dramatic gift as well as an atmospheric one, and the music is easily absorbed and appreciated. It was nice to hear it again live by a good cast and a well-trained orchestra under the very professional and empathic conducting of Carlos Vieu. The chorus has few interventions but they were agreeable, led by the competent Juan Casasbellas.
Daniela Tabernig managed to project a convincing Rusalka even if hampered by absurd and ugly clothing in two of the three acts; she sang beautifully with an ample clear voice. The Brazilian Eric Herrero has a fine tenor voice with firm highs; his Prince was forthright. Homero Pérez Miranda (Chilean-Cuban) did an expressive Vodnik with his voice under control (he avoiding the spreading I noticed in other roles); however, again his appearance was at odds with the role (no fault of his).
Jezibaba the Witch is a character role, but the veteran Elisabeth Canis overdid the harshness in her singing. Marina Silva was impressive as the Foreign Princess: a big voice of real intensity and attractive looks. The Three Dryads were sung freshly by Oriana Favaro, Rocío Giordano and Vanina Guilledo, who look young and enticing; again, no fault of them that they were given partners in a whorish context. Finally, Cecilia Pastawski was a spry Turnspit and Mirko Tomas a seasoned Gamekeeper. Igor Herzog, who is Czech, helped all of them with the tricky pronunciation.
On the staging: producer, Mercedes Marmorek; stage design, Luciana Fornasari; costumes, Lucía Marmorek; lighting, Alejandro Le Roux. The libretto states for the First and the Third Act: "A glade at the edge of the lake, surrounded by forests. The Three Dryads dance." What did we get? An elegant whorehouse with reminiscences of Flora´s party in "La Traviata"... No inkling of water except a silly bathtub; the Moon was a lamp... The Water-sprite clad humanly with a rundown suit and a hat! And the pure Rusalka, creature of the river, looking like a whore... Of course, nothing worked.
The Second Act takes place in the Palace and there´s a nice staging of a ball with fine costumes and an agreeable projection of a garden with a bower. The choreography by Ignacio González Cano is simple but pleasant; he also imagined the slitherings of the three Demons that accompanied Jezibaba in the other acts. However, the weight of the other acts was decisive: this was a good "Rusalka" musically but the production didn´t help.
Buenos Aires Herald