Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sulking and Soaring with Rusulka

Opera is the most enchanting art medium, what with the soaring music and the sets and the drama, but the plot can get convoluted, not to say goofy. The Minnesota Opera's recent production of Antonin Dvořák's Rusulka is a case in point, the enchantment due not only to the music but also to the dancing and the evocative back-projections of ferns and water grasses. However, the plot careens well past goofy into the realm of utter incoherence.

Yet it doesn't matter much. Maybe it's even a good thing: the fractured logic of the scenario frees the mind to groove more intently on the vast unsatisfied yearning that runs through the veins of the title character, and the opera itself, from beginning to end.

Rusulka is a beautiful water nymph. In the opening scene she falls in love with a young military man who's been hanging around her pond. Or perhaps she's loved him for a long time? In any case, he can't see her and she can't touch him, so there's an element of frustration involved. She implores her father to make her mortal so she can experience the thrill of love.

During her conversation with her father Rusulka sings the opera's most famous aria, the lyrics of which go like this:

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people's homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.

For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!

Her father thinks this is a bad idea, becoming mortal. He tries to dissuade Rusulka from pursuing this dream, but without success, and he ends up turning her over to a witch named Ježibaba, who agrees to grant Rusulka's request. But there are a few strings attached. If Rusulka becomes mortal, she'll lose the power of speech, and should the love she aspires to go sour, both she and the prince will be eternally damned. Undeterred, she agrees to Ježibaba's conditions.

The second act takes place at the Prince's palace, smartly furnished but far less appealing than Rusulka's forest domain. She and the prince have been together for a week, and things aren't going well. The prince loves her but finds her "cold." It's not only that she can't talk, but she seems reluctant to open herself to any kind of intimacy with her sweetheart. 

No explanation is given for this behavior, and it seems odd, considering how ardently Rusulka had longed to embrace just this type of experience. In any case, by the end of the act an evil princess has succeeded in alienating Rusulka from the prince, and Rusulka would like nothing better than to leave the world of mortals behind and return to her pond.

 Ježibaba agrees to grant Rusulka's request, but once again there are onerous strings attached. Rusulka will no longer be allowed to frolic with the other water nymphs. Rather, they'll flee at the very sight of her. Her appointed role will be to lure men to into the marsh grasses with her glowing green light. And if she does end up embracing anyone, they'll die instantly.

As you've probably already guessed, in the third act the prince shows up again, apologizes for having betrayed and abandoned Rusulka, and urges her to return to him. That's not going to happen ... but drawn once again by her love for the fellow, she can't resist giving him a little kiss.

Though it takes three minutes to tell the story, it takes three hours to watch it unfold onstage, and it's a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a very appealing Rusulka (an important factor in the production's success), and Ben Wager, in the role of her father, comes across as a likable and randy elder, rather than a grumpy old man. Dvořák's music has neither the catchy melodies we so commonly find in Verdi's works, nor the swooping emotions that run through Puccini's ever-popular creations like an electric shock, but it grows on you.
But does the opera actually mean anything? I don't think so. Ježibaba's conditions seem arbitrary and Rusulka's behavior inconsistent and sometimes inexplicable. We might as well set the opera beside other fin-de-siècle works like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions, and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, in which logic counts for less than atmosphere and the cracks in the plot open passages to the mysteries and pleasures of the subconscious.

If there is a lesson to be learned, I guess it would be this: be careful what you wish for. But Rusulka remains the heroine of the piece from start to finish, and the beauty and gravity of her yearnings, though they lead her (and others) to disaster, are more appealing than the dancing of the other nymphs, who seem comfortable but giddy in the submarine world where the temperature is nice and the flow is unceasing, though it's difficult to tell where you stop and the rest of the world begins.
By chance, a few days later I came upon a passage in a novel that cultivates the same associations between femininity, water, youth, love, beauty, and sadness. About midway through that long, rugged Icelandic classic, Independent People, the crofter's daughter is filled with anticipation of her first visit to town with her father. Laxness describes the scene on the riverbank in the moonlight as follows:

"The lukewarm mud spurted up between her bare toes and sucked noisily when she lifted her heel. Tonight she was going to bathe in the dew, as if she had never had a body before. On every pool of the river there was a phalarope to make her a bow; no bird in all the marshes is so courtly in its demeanour on Midsum­mer Eve. It was after midnight, wearing slowly on for one o’clock. The spring night reigned over the valley like a young girl. Should she come or should she not come? She hesitated, stole forward on her toes — and it was day. The feathery mists over the marshes rose twining up the slopes and lay, like a veil, in innocent modesty about the mountain s waist. Against the white sheen of the lake loomed the shape of some animal, like a kelpie in the pellucid night.
A grassy hollow on the margin of the river, and leading up to it through the dew the wandering trail left by two inexperienced feet. The birds were silent for a while. She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish."

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