Opera. Exquisitely beautiful tones and ambiguous nature mysticism. Dvořák’s Rusalka is now performed in Gothenburg for the first time.
"Absolutely world class." SR Sjuhärad
"An incredible experience." Göteborgs-Posten
"Enchanting and poetic." Dagens Nyheter
What an evening of opera!" Borås Tidning
"Immensely successful - get along to Gothenburg!" Bohusläningen
"It hits you right in the solar plexus." Dagens Nyheter
"Shimmeringly lyrical Rusalka." SR Kulturnytt
"An absolutely sterling performance." Aftonbladet
Watch a movie clip from Rusalka
With its exquisitely beautiful tones and the ambiguity of its nature mysticism, Dvořák’s Rusalka has been an eagerly awaited production for The Göteborg Opera. The work – now being staged for the first time in Gothenburg – is being performed more and more on the world’s stages, and each team of directors faces the exciting challenge of distinguishing between two worlds: the world of nature inhabited by the mermaid Rusalka and the human world of the prince.
As the libretto is based on H.C. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the story should be familiar to most people. However, here the story is wrapped in a late romantic musical style by Dvořák’s masterful ability to write for an orchestra, together with his contemporary interest in psychoanalysis and metaphysics. The well-known team, headed by David Radok, offer a visually vertiginous journey over the psychological precipices.
Soprano Elisabet Strid has played Rusalka on several stages throughout the world and is now making it her first role at The Göteborg Opera as she enters fully into her international career. Her prince is the Austrian tenore robusto Nikolai Schukoff, while Susanne Resmark returns to play the witch after, among other things, making her debut at the Metropolitan. The demanding roles of the foreign princess and the water goblin are played by our own soloists, Annalena Persson and Anders Lorentzson . Conductor Olaf Henzold has worked successfully with us in the past on Richard Strauss and Wagner. Now he has the chance to add a little Slavic spice to the magical orchestral brew.
Watch photos from Rusalka
Rusalka – Czech opera’s crown of water
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) achieved his breakthrough as an operatic composer with Rusalka just three years before he died. Although we view him as a symphonist, he considered himself to be a dramatic composer. After eight operas he achieved great success at the National Theatre in Prague in 1901, one of his greatest triumphs as a composer. A few years later, his last opera, Armida, is said to have hastened his death from a brain haemorrhage.
Dvořák was born in a town just north of Prague, and despite his later fame he never forgot his origins. His musical talent was discovered early, and he made a living playing the viola in Prague’s opera orchestra, conducted by composer Bedrich Smetana. Smetana was the founder of Czech opera, kicking off with The Bartered Bride (1866). Smetana encouraged Dvořák’s attempts at composition. What we currently know as Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) then consisted of the regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. In Dvořák’s time, all those areas belonged to the Habsburg empire, i.e. Austria-Hungary. It was therefore important for Czechs to mark their national individuality. Particularly during the era of national romanticism, composers, writers and artists harked back to their roots through folk songs and fairy tales. Dvořák also did this, but he turned it more inwards in a personal way. There is a clear national basis in Dvořák’s music through folk dances and songs, combined with a more classical focus, inspired by Beethoven, Schubert and later Brahms. A certain Wagnerian influence can also be detected now and then during his career.
Around 1880 Dvořák reached maturity as a composer. He received an invitation from the USA, where he stayed between 1892 and 1895. There he became, if possible, even more nationalistic, which is often the case with people living in exile. His longing for home was intense, and although he used Indian folk songs in his final and most famous symphony no. 9 “From the New World”, after that came the much-played cello concerto in a rush of joy over being able to move back home. Once returned he read the folk ballads of author Karel Jaromír Erben, and composed five symphonic poems based on them. The first two, The Water Sprite and The Midday Witch, are particularly important, as they link to two characters in Rusalka.
Home in Prague, Dvořák also devoted himself to opera again. Now came his last three operas The Devil and Kate, Rusalka and Armida. The fact that his operas have been regarded as dramatically weak has been explained by his not having access to good librettists or literary models. But with Rusalka he had a stroke of luck, courtesy of the young author Jaroslav Kvapil. The director of the Prague National Theatre showed Kvapil’s finished opera libretto to Dvořák, who became very enthusiastic about it. In an inspired rush he finished the opera in seven months in 1900. The majority of it came into being in his summer house in the Bohemian country village of Vysoká, now a museum called “Villa Rusalka”. Nearby is an overgrown lake, “Rusalka Lake”, which is said to have inspired his score, as the water seems to be present in almost every single bar.
A fabulous libretto === Kvapil was 27 years younger than Dvořák, and would later become a dramaturgist, in charge of the Prague National Theatre. From his memoirs, we know much about the creation process of this work. The previous year Kvapil had been to Bornholm for a summer holiday, and that had caused him to revisit his childhood experiences of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, particularly the story of The Little Mermaid (written 1837). He wrote his libretto there without having any arrangement with a composer. Hans Christian Andersen was hardly the first to come up with this fairy tale, which is based on a Central European legend rooted in the oral storytelling tradition. It exists in several different variants; the best known is the story Ondine (1811), by the German Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué.
Despite the universal aspects of the fairy tale, Kvapil wanted to create a distinctly Czech national-romantic work. Taking Andersen as his basis, he also looked to Motte-Fouqué and Gerhart Hauptmann’s famous The Sunken Bell (1897). The biggest differences from Andersen’s fairy tale are towards the end: in the fairy tale, the mermaid is transformed into a warm wind that caresses the Prince, who married the Princess, whereas in the opera, Rusalka has to watch her beloved Prince die from her kiss. It may seem a more “operatic” ending, but it is also more tragic and touching. Kvapil has instead sharpened the rivalry between Rusalka and the Princess.
The première was a triumph, with an overwhelming response from both the critics and the public. The following morning Dvořák rushed to Kvapil and was astonished that he did not have a new libretto ready for him. Kvapil never forgave himself for the fact that for various reasons there was no further cooperation.
The music in Rusalka
It is easy to understand why everyone immediately took the opera to their hearts. Alongside Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Janácek’s Jenufa it has become absolutely the most popular Czech opera. Many Slavic operas are otherwise too domestically focused to really make any impact beyond their homeland. The universal aspect of the fairy tale is a contributory factor. But above all it is Dvořák’s music and his ability to enhance the libretto that makes the work so touching and ambiguous. The music is of the same high quality as his best symphonic works, but here he also shows that he is a musical dramatist of the first order. The melancholy Slavic tone is there as a background, but primarily it focuses on the children of nature. Dvořák deftly balances the two worlds by making the natural world sound more nationally Slavic, and thus more “natural” than the Prince’s court, where the music has a more continental touch.
Straight away, in the orchestral introduction to the first act, two of the work’s most important musical motifs are presented: the very first thing we hear, more like a rhythm than a melody, symbolises nature and its power. The second motif follows immediately after – a melancholy, yearning melody for strings, which represents both Rusalka personally and her love for the Prince. This theme, as well as several others, reappears often, and it has caused several researchers to see Wagnerian influences in Dvořák. The three acts form a growing intensification through their different characters: the first light and hopeful, the second dramatic and the third tragic. The first act contains the opera’s best known piece, Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”.
In spite of the work’s success at home, it was slow to break through abroad. The director of the Vienna Opera, the composer Gustav Mahler, wanted to play Rusalka the following season. This production never came off and the Viennese had to wait until 1987, when the work was presented with a star-studded cast and preserved for posterity on CD. By that stage, Rusalka had been played more than 1500 times in Prague and the Czech company Supraphon had produced three different recordings.
While the opera has been popular in numerous German opera houses, it was not until 1950 that it reached London. In 1986 opera director David Pountney put on a famed production at the English National Opera, where the entire plot took place in a nursery. Robert Carsen’s 2002 production in Paris was even more psychoanalytical, with the reflecting water’s surface above the parents’ bedroom. The American superstar Renée Fleming took the title role. Martin Kusej’s 2010 production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich associated the role of the Water Sprite with Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his children locked up in the cellar for decades. All these three productions are available on DVD.
The Swedish première for Rusalka was not until 2006, at the Norrland Opera in Umeå, in a joint project with the Cape Town Opera in South Africa. Director Staffan Aspegren had chosen to imagine the two worlds from a class perspective: Rusalka was a domestic servant who longed to enter the refined world of the upper classes, represented by the Prince and the Foreign Princess. There, as now in Göteborg, the title role was taken by Elisabet Strid.
Watch a film clip from the season presentation.
Look at Lars-Åke Thessman's sketches for the set design
Look at Ann-Mari Anttila's costume sketches
Pay a visit to the OperaShop in our foyer.
Here you will find a selection of Rusalka related products, such as CD's.