A psychedelic fairy tale

A psychedelic fairy tale

In her return to La Scala with Rusalka, Emma Dante distances herself from the iridescent image of the nymph usually associated with this opera

Rusalka HP

Emma Dante returns to where it all began: La Scala, where she debuted as opera director with the famous Carmen directed by Daniel Barenboim, a succès de scandale from the inauguration of the 2009-2010 season. Fourteen years later, Rusalka arrives on the scene. The director made no concessions when taking on the moving and unsettling “fiaba lirica” by Antonín Dvořák.

MP Fairy tales are a constant for you, to the point that on your website you categorize your work into: prose, opera and fairy tales.
ED This chapter began many years ago when my company (Ed. Sud Costa Occidentale) and I started also working with children’s theatre, shows for children. Rusalka is clearly not a story for children, but all fairy tales are interesting when they aren’t watered down, like the stories of Giambattista Basile, which I’ve worked with. I am interested in them when they teach children a moral, which equips them with lessons they will need when they are older.

MP What type of fairy tale is Rusalka?
ED I would say it’s psychological, or rather psychedelic. Above all, it’s a layered fairy tale. The plot can be summed up in a few lines: an aquatic creature wants to become a woman because she has fallen in love with a prince, so a witch casts a spell on her but warns her that if the love is not reciprocated she will be condemned to hell. In working on this story I realized that there are much more complex problems than first appears. For example, the rejection of a stranger. In the second act, Rusalka is rejected by all the inhabitants in the palace, both women and men, led by the foreign princess. They push her away, judge her and “tear her to pieces”, not just metaphorically. Therefore, I imagined a scene in which the guests eat her tentacles.

MP So Rusalka won’t have the classic tail we are used to seeing, at least from the Disney film on?
ED My Rusalka will be a nymph with tentacles from the waist down, like a jellyfish. I detest depictions of the nymph with her breasts showing and a curvy fish tail. It degrades the character; it sexualizes her. I want to tell the story of a different Rusalka, who will first appear on stage siting in a wheelchair.

MP So, the show will be a reflection on disability.
ED Exactly. Rusalka earns a pair of legs with the spell but loses her voice, in other words, another disability. Then she once again loses the use of her legs and will come back on stage bandaged. Her final sentence will be to live in this hybrid state: no longer an aquatic creature, nor a human.

MP Speaking of losing her voice, you have already worked with an opera with a mute person: La muette de Portici by Daniel Auber.
ED In that case though the character was mute from beginning to end. In this one, it’s a temporary condition in which Rusalka stops singing, and what does it mean for a nymph to stop singing? Just think about the nymph in the Odyssey. In some ways, it’s as if Rusalka starts dying. In that moment, when the prince speaks to her, she is like a ghost, a projection. I thought of using a double, another actress, as a sort of maddened Ophelia overcome with delusions, who would die on stage and be laid on a bed of flowers. So it’s as if Rusalka sees herself die, as if she were living a nightmare of which she is both the maker and the victim.

MP These moments of psychomotor distress are a constant in your shows. I’m thinking of Misericordia, for example, in which a dancer reenacts a real crisis.
ED My form of theatre always involves the pathology of the body. I find it interesting when characters are not stable and lose their center, when they can’t stand on two feet, are thrown off balance, fall. The stage is a place fraught with danger that we must reveal.

MP Where will the opera be set?
ED We won’t be on the shores of a lake as is written in the libretto. I wanted to avoid the iridescent image that is often associated with this opera. With Carmine (Ed. Maringola) we imagined a crumbling and swampy gothic church, like after a flood. At the center of the scene is a large pool of rainwater, which in my imagination connects the world of humans to the world of aquatic creatures. We came to this image by considering another major element present in the opera after water: the moon, whose light will filter through the broken rose window of the church. The prince’s palace as well will be flooded, and the guests will sit at a table with water up to their waists in a surreal Buñuel-esque situation, like in The Phantom of Liberty in which dinner is eaten while sitting on toilets. Vanessa (Ed. Sannino) drew the guests as if they were toys that move mechanically because they have no heart.

MP Is this what distinguishes the world of humans from the world of sprites and nymphs?
ED Human beings are robots; the true humans are sprites, despite having gills and tentacles. It is a world that recalls, in some ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

MP That’s the second time you have mentioned Shakespeare: Ophelia, Midsummer Night…
ED I could also mention Romeo and Juliet, that romanticism of English theatre in which the characters either go mad or die for love, in which everything is always extreme. I think Rusalka is very connected to the world of Shakespeare.

MP Also in terms of mixing genres?
ED It’s true that the music in some points is almost like an opera buffa but neither I nor the director (Ed. Tomáš Hanus) wanted to go in that direction. Our Rusalka is a tragic, unsettling, even damned opera about terrible love, from the beginning to the end.

MP Let’s talk about the other characters, starting with the father, the water goblin.
ED Wodnik is a feeble creature. He does not deal with his daughter head on or try to shake her out of her melancholic state. Of course he’s upset that she wants to lose her water nymph body, but he is the one who tells her to go to the witch Ježibaba. In the rest of the opera, he serves as the commentary, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy: he doesn’t act, only intervenes to express judgement.

MP And the prince? He too is a “robot” like all the humans?
ED Actually, he’s not like the others. He is a more tormented being. At the beginning, he truly loves Rusalka. In the first few scenes we see him go to church three times with Rusalka observing him lovesick from afar, trying to reach him but unable due to her condition since she still has tentacles. In the second act, he rejects her after having courted her because he is seduced by the foreign princess. In the third act, he finally understands that he can’t live without her and tries again, but by then it’s too late.

MP There are many female characters, in addition to Rusalka, in the opera: the foreign princess, the witch, the nymphs…
ED In the world we have created, you will also see some fawns chased by violent hunters. They wear costumes that show their entrails, as if they had been devoured, but despite this they continue to live. They are obviously on Rusalka’s side, the only pure character.

MP In other words, the men don’t make a good impression.
ED In my shows, almost never.

MP What is the moral of this fairy tale?
ED It is connected to the idea of cherishing love. A great love story can save the world if it is not wasted. That’s why it must be cherished. If the prince had not walked all over Rusalka’s feelings, she wouldn’t have been hurt and he wouldn’t have died. It’s a waste. The whole opera describes a desperate attempt at change, which could happen, but due to small deviations, it never comes to fruition. Like always, the woman is the sacrificial lamb of this story.

MP Carmen was also a victim.
ED Yes, but in a different way. Actually, in some ways, Carmen wasn’t a victim at all. She is a free woman without rules, but more importantly, she knows how to say no. Rusalka on the other hand, always says yes. Women are not all the same just because they are women.

MP Do you love doing opera?
ED I love opera so much, but I don’t love the limits that doing opera imposes: many breaks during rehearsals, singers being absent, compromises to achieve goals. Art must be a place of absolute freedom. There can be no cages. But then something miraculous happens because music has the incredible ability to make everything come together.

Mattia Palma