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Rusalka: A Fairy Tale in Motion

By Paul Hopper, HGO Dramaturg

No genre has captured the world’s imagination as firmly and persistently as the fairy tale. Spanning centuries, continents, and cultures, the shared experience of telling short, familiar stories has existed for millennia. These tales, familiar either because they are passed down or resemble another story, are saturated with the accumulated wisdom of the past.

In 1812, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué published Undine, a landmark German novella that drew on the French myth of Melusine and the writings of the early 16th-century Renaissance man Paracelsus. It is in Undine that we first find direct source material for Jaroslav Kvapil’s Rusalka libretto. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is most often credited with the definitive mermaid story. The Little Mermaid of 1837 combined the myths of undines, nymphs, nixies, and selkies (seductive seals that turn into humans in Scottish folklore), into one iconic tale. While this was the source that underwent Disneyfication for the 1989 animated film, the story of a young mermaid who gives up her magical life for an unrequited love in the human realm harbors significantly more darkness and despair than Disney leads one to believe.

Disney did, however, include much of Andersen’s original story. The title mermaid dreams of walking on land and marrying the prince she has admired from the waters. Her father refers her to a sea witch who brews a potion to turn her into a human, but here is where the story departs significantly. Andersen’s mermaid longs not only for the prince, but also for an immortal soul that will live on after her physical death. As a mermaid she is expected to live three hundred years, after which she will dissolve into sea foam. To become human, she has to give up her voice by letting the sea witch cut out her tongue, and the entire deal is contingent upon her marrying the prince. If he marries another, she will die at the next sunrise. Her transformation will be excruciatingly painful, she is warned; it will feel as if she is being split in two and that with each step with her human legs she will feel as if she is being pierced with sharp knives.

 Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto for Rusalka draws on aspects of both Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Fouqué’s Undine while creating a uniquely Czech story. The title role is an unnamed rusalka, or water nymph, that lives in a lake. Her father is an archetype familiar to Czech audiences. The vodník, or water sprite, was immortalized by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben’s lyric poem Vodník in 1883. Erben’s sprite was much more vengeful and violent, as exemplified in a particularly grim scene in which he throws the dismembered head of his baby against the house of the woman who deserted him. Kvapil’s Vodník is much more fatherly, in a traditional sense.

The iconic sea witch, or ježibaba, has no counterpart in Undine but is modeled after the notorious Baba Yaga. Both Andersen and Kvapil chose to include this character steeped in Slavic folklore, making it the notable 19th-century addition to the tale. A Baba Yaga is traditionally a ferocious-looking woman who dwells in the forest. She always exhibits striking ambiguity, making it unclear whether she offers assistance or destruction. She dutifully brews Rusalka’s requested potion under the conditions of sacrificing her voice and the attached consequences.

Kvapil, aided by Dvořák’s sublime melodies, dances, and orchestrations, created a fulcrum of the Czech operatic repertoire, at the time rivaled only by Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.  Yet Rusalka was not produced in the United States until 1975, 74 years after its premiere.  In recent years the opera's champion has been soprano Renee Fleming, who has been identified with it since 1990, the year she debuted the title role in Seattle; she performed it at HGO in 1991.   

The Glyndebourne Festival production we are presenting, by Melly Still, was built around soprano Ana María Martínez, who has also made the role her own. It is a very physical production, with a tremendous amount of movement for the title character.  As HGO’s revival director Donna Stirrup puts it, “a team of six dancers (dressed in black) create the effect of “animating” a performer, i.e., making it appear that he/she is swimming or floating while being supported/carried/spun around/flipped. It takes huge discipline, high levels of fitness, and a fair bit of courage on the part of the performer to do this.” The result is an incredibly collaborative performance that highlights the unique skills of Ana María and her cast mates in an inventive production that is not to be missed.