Rusalka, Glyndebourne, August 2009


Dvořak is not my favourite composer, and I’d not seen any of his ten operas before. Nine of them are little known, and this one is mainly famous for the song to the moon, sung by Rusalka herself in Act I, so I wasn’t expecting much. But this was a revelation, and I congratulate Glyndebourne for putting it on.

Jiři Bělohlavek conducted the London Philharmonic, giving the music a wonderful emotional intensity at just the right moments, and the production by Melly Still, with designs by Rae Smith and lighting by Paule Constable, gave exactly the right feel to this drama pitting the powers of nature, particularly water, against human feelings and emotions. Like Ashton’s ballet Ondine it is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s fairy tale Undine, and tells of a water nymph named Rusalka who falls in love with a prince. To win him she acquires human form while losing her ability to speak, and he is overwhelmed with love for her. At their wedding, however, she becomes cold, spurns his advances, and is unable to compete with the fatal attraction of the foreign princess. Rusalka abandons her prince, and though he searches for her and they are briefly reunited, his fate is sealed by his own unfaithfulness, and he dies in her arms.

Rusalka was beautifully sung and performed by Ana Maria Martinez, and the prince was the strikingly handsome Brandon Jovanovich, who sang like a god. Rusalka’s father, the water spirit Vodnik, was very well sung by Mischa Schelomianski, and the witch Ježibaba was strongly sung by Larissa Diadkova, whom I saw recently as an outstanding Fricka in the Mariinsky’s Ring cycle in London. The foreign princess was well portrayed as an attractive and manipulative young woman by Tatiana Pavlovskaya, and the whole cast did an excellent job, including the black-clothed shadowy figures representing forces of nature. Altogether a glorious evening that stimulates a desire to see more of Dvořak’s operas.

Meaning and origin of the name Rusalka: the word rusalka is Slavic — in Russian it means mermaid, and in Czech water nymph — but its etymology is far older, the term rus having an ancient Indo-European origin meaning dew or humidity (rasa in Sanskrit and Lithuanian).

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