How Dvořák must have loved his sad water-spirit (Sally Matthews depicted in the latest revival of Melly Still's unforgettable Glyndebourne production above by Tristram Kenton): there isn't a bar that palls in his Rusalka, and I was very reluctant to let the opera go in the fourth and last Opera in Depth class on it last Monday afternoon. Curious that so fantastical a tale, differently treated in many variants, should have brought forth such deep responses from so many of the masters who touched it, otherwise Hans Christian Andersen in The Little Mermaid, Mendelssohn in his Overture The Fair Melusine and, least known these days, Henri de la Motte, Baron Fouqué, in the seminal tale, Undine, of 1811 (illustrated below in a later edition by Arthur Rackham).
No wonder Goethe loved it so much. Undine is no wan angel; when we first meet her she's capricious and wilful (not bad traits for a heroine by today's standards), only later transformed by love for her Prince Huldbrand. What's remarkable, though, is the author's human understanding of the love triangle which develops in the royal realm.
The fascination of Dvořák and Kvapil's second act is how the sudden appearance of the Foreign Princess to challenge the mute-among-mortals seems hallucinatory to the Prince: she even has some of Rusalka's music, like a kind of Black Swan, representing the sexual desire lacking in the protagonist (Robert Carsen's superb Paris production makes her and witch Jezibaba into aspects of Rusalka). In Fouqué, the unhappiness develops over time; at first Princess Bertalda becomes Rusalka's confidante for real once the prince has ridden back through the forest with his love back to his domain (painting below by Daniel Maclise, 1843).
The situation is complicated by the fact that she turns out to be the mortal child snatched away by the water spirits from the fisherman and his wife who have since brought up Rusalka as their own. At the beginning of Chapter XIII ('How they lived at Castle Ringstetten') we get this:
The writer of this story, both because it moves his own heart, and because he wishes it to move that of others, begs you, dear reader, to pardon him, if he now briefly passes over a considerable space of time, only cursorily mentioning the events that marked it. He knows well that he might portray skilfully, step by step, how Huldbrand's heart began to turn from Undine to Bertalda; how Berthalda more and more responded with ardent affection to the young knight, and how they both looked upon the poor wife as a mysterious being rather to be feared than pitied; how Undine wept, and how her tears stung the knight's heart with remorse, without awakening his former love, so that though he at times was kind and endearing to her, a cold shudder would soon draw him from her, and he would turn to his fellow mortal, Bertalda. All this the reader knows might be fully detailed, and perhaps ought to have been so; but such a task would have been too painful, for similar things have been known to him by sad experience, and he shrinks from their shadow even in remembrance. You know probably a like feeling, dear reader, for such is the lot of mortal man. Happy are you if you have received rather than inflicted the pain, for in such things it is more blessed to receive than to give.
How this affected the author precisely is not known, though I hazard a guess from the fact that he was was twice married (I've found nothing about the first wife). But how truthful, and - in the uncredited translation I have - how much more telling than the discreetly erotic drawings that accompany it.
I note that Fouqué provided the libretto for Hoffmann's opera on the subject; what a shame that the music is so much more pedestrian than either the novella or Hoffmann's literary tales.
In the end I used nothing from the Hoffmann opera to illustrate the classes, though there was plenty from Mendelssohn, Weber, Tchaikovsky (the four surviving numbers from his Undine, including the love duet which became the Act 2 Pas d'action with violin and cello solos replacing soprano and tenor in Swan Lake), Sullivan (yes, the magic/spooky music of Iolanthe is worth taking seriously) and Dvořák's other operas (chiefly The Devil and Kate and Armida, chronologically either side of Rusalka).
As for the opera itself, we had mostly what we needed in two CD sets and two films. On disc, there's the Supraphon Rusalka from Neumann with the unsurpassably luminous Gabriela Beňačková, whose Song to the Moon is peerless, or at least first equal with Lucia Popp's - this is actually from a desert island arias disc -
and Mackerras's, also with the Czech Philharmonic. starring Fleming and Heppner, never better. The last duet is overwhelming in what for me is maybe the greatest, Liebestod-ish end of any opera. This excerpt comes in a tad too late for my liking, but you get the idea.
The DVDs are of Carsen's production mentioned above, again with Fleming, and the late, lamented Sergey Larin as the Prince, and another going way back to Pountney's Victorian nursery fantasia for English National Opera, which is still heartbreaking in the final scene (Eilene Hannan and John Treleaven). So much so that one student had to run out of the room at the end so that we didn't hear her sobs. I had that the first time I saw the film, though I don't remember the live performance having quite the same effect. Alas, Eilene Hannan died in 2014 at the age of 67 - best remembered as an intense presence on stage in everything she did.
Meanwhile, for next season, academic year, call it what you will, I've decided that we'll devote the autumn term to three, rather than two, operas, one a stage work: Handel's Agrippina, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Weill's Der Silbersee. The spring term will see the third instalment of our four-year Ring journey with Siegfried, while the summer bring Strauss's Elektra and one more TBC. All tending to the Germanic, I know, but that's what the London rep is offering in 2019-20. Let me know in a message here if you're interested, complete with e-mail; I won't publish it, but I'll be sure to reply.