Rusalka and the “new world” of Dvořák harmonies

Rusalka and the “new world” of Dvořák harmonies

The Czech director Tomáš Hanus debuts at La Scala with the masterpiece by Antonín Dvořák, a score with the most exquisite musical fabric

Rusalka (5)

Undine, naiad, nymph. If you search “Rusalka” in a Czech dictionary, it’s immediately clear who the subject of one of the greatest classics of Bohemian theatre is. Early Romanticism held in high regard these forest nymphs that live in water and attract mortals to try and pull them under. Eager to leave the mark of his genius on opera, Antonín Dvořák brought the ancient legend back to life, performing it triumphantly in Prague in 1901. A new production for La Scala Theatre, which will be on stage from June 6-22, its direction was entrusted to Emma Dante and conducting to Tomáš Hanus, musical director of the Welsh National Opera, which debuted at the Wiener Staatsoper with Rusalka in 2017 and returned many times to the Bayerische Staatsoper.

VC Maestro, as a respected interpreter of the Bohemian school, what link do you have with composers like Dvořák and Janáček?
TH Although it brings up memories from my childhood, I don’t like to be defined as a specialist of this repertoire. I prefer to be considered a great conductor. Nevertheless, I recognize there is an affinity between me and these artists, and not just for our similar origins. In their works, which are as enjoyable as they are timeless, there is a unique combination of lyrical talent and a strong unburdened craftsmanship. Rusalka reaches unparalleled heights of melodic eloquence. It lives in an enchanted musical landscape steeped in timbral whimsy. But they are also pure in truth because hiding behind the fairy tale is the subtle discrepancy between animate and inanimate beings, between longed-for and unattained love, which imbues the opera with an impalpable vein of melancholy that is distinctively Slavic, fiery but also tempered.

VC Dvořák's Central European nymph lands for the first time at Piermarini’s theatre after more than a century. How might you explain this prolonged absence?
TH The infrequent appearance of Rusalka on Western stages is probably connected to its fleeting nature. We expect the classic happy ending from a fairy tale, but in this “favola lirica”, which is light as far as fairy tales go but bleak as a tragic play, Dvořák contradicts all expectations. Like Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Rusalka is an aquatic creature that becomes a woman for love. On this premise, however, a psychological story is built (these were the years of Freud, the Vienna Secession and Klimt), one that intersects themes that have nothing to do with fairy tales, like the rejection of self-expression, desire, betrayal and suicide. Naturally, the fantasy emerges because the Symbolist aesthetic owns subject matter with its imagery of magical creatures immersed in the mist and Nordic shadows far from human civilization.

VC Some in the past have accused Rusalka of lacking originality. How would you define it?
TH While the story itself is inspired by an old theme from Romantic literature, the music is beyond original. Dvořák pours all his passion for the woodlands and waters surrounding his home in the countryside into the score, including carefully transforming the spells from Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto into the exquisite, shimmering musical fabric upon which the voices weave delicate melodies without excluding moments of declamatory and dramatic vocalism. Everything is paired with an admirable degree of care for the orchestral colour, with its clear symphonic stamp. Rusalka is an opera in which the orchestra plays a central role in suggesting the musical drama itself, in skilfully highlighting every nuance. One example is the grand final love duet between the prince and Rusalka. The right combination of sounds is needed to avoid falling into the trap of easy sentimentalism, excessive yearning, a tired cliché.

VC And yet, it’s not lacking references to Wagner on a harmonic level, with chords from Tristan and Isolde and recurring themes, or reminders of Czech folklore…
TH Like most of his late 19th-century contemporaries, Dvořák absorbs the late-Romantic language of his time but dulls the contents to stand firmly in the land of fairy tales rather than myths. An Tristan-Akkord echo can be sensed when the expression of love cries out with greater vehemence, but there’s no direct reference. His inspiration is based also on his contact with the typical songs and dances of the Bohemian peoples. Also here, these are influences that are enclosed in secondary passages (for example the comic scene between the gamekeeper and the kitchen hand at the beginning of Act II), which enrich rather than limit the “new world” of Dvořák harmonies. In this strange opera in which the heroine is mute for much of the three acts (in her “humanization” she lacks the ability to speak), there is a sense of paradox that foreshadows the avant-garde of the beginning of the 20th century.

VC Imprisoned by her muteness, Rusalka pays the price for her choice with betrayal and realizes how false and dishonest the human world is. But is she really an innocent victim?
TH Rusalka is a being between two worlds (the daughter of the water goblin and a woman) who wishes to become completely human in order to be with the prince she is in love with. When the unfaithful young man allows himself to be seduced by the foreign princess, there are devastating effects, but she is not the one who pays with her life; rather the prince will perish in the arms of the girl so that she can be welcomed back to the dreamworld she came from. During the three acts, we see her thinking, choosing, acting and even forgiving. She doesn’t act like a victim subjected to a fate of unhappiness at all. Her message is a powerful one of unconditional love, which finds unspoken meaning in the most intense solitary moments (the anthology piece of “Preghiera alla luna”). For the soprano, who must have excellent acting skills, it is an incredible challenge to juggle hypnotic acting performances with the heart wrenching audaciousness of opera buffa.

VC Rusalka is a score you have been conducting for more than a decade in prestigious European theatres, like Vienna, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Monaco. Which version do you prefer and how has your approach changed over the years?
TH The attitude at the core is the same, but every time I conduct Rusalka, I study it as if it were the first time. The experience I have could drive me to work on “autopilot”, but every production is different, has its direction and requires a certain type of execution depending on the orchestra and singers involved. There are sceneries that change the way the opera is watched, like that of Martin Kušej, who I conducted for recently at Bayerische Staatsoper (for which there is a DVD recording available), in which the innocence of Rusalka is stripped away with crude realism and the spectator is invited to look beyond the fairy tale facade. Others are more traditionalist, offering a less disruptive interpretation. I respect them all without bias. The important thing is that they in turn respect the intimate beauty of this masterpiece.

Valentina Crosetto