More than anything in the world, the water nymph Rusalka yearns to become human to win the heart of a young prince. But this metamorphosis comes at a price: she will lose her voice and be damned forever should their love story fail.
No reflection of a silver moon in the dried-up lake below. International Opera Awards 2020 nominee Dirk Schmeding stages Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka at Staatstheater Braunschweig far removed from its usual poetic fairytale world. Stuck in the horror vision of a decaying no man’s land, US soprano Julie Adams embodies the title character lost between two worlds.
The Water Sprite
The Foreign Princess
The kitchen boy
First wood elf
Second wood elf
Isabel Stüber Malagamba
Third wood elf
Choir Staatstheater Braunschweig
Orchestra of Staatstheater Braunschweig
Jaroslav Kvapil, based on 'Undine' by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, 'The Little Mermaid' by Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Sunken Bell' by Gerhart Hauptmann and 'A Bouquet of Czech folktales' by Karel Jaromír Erben
The wood elves tease the old Water Sprite, who only moderates his anger at their unseemly behaviour when the mermaid Rusalka laments her misery to him: she longs to leave the water, become human and know love. Despite his warning that she would lose everything if she followed her wish, she asks him for help. Finally, he advises her to turn to the witch Ježibaba.
Ježibaba is initially reluctant. Only when Rusalka promises to give her everything she owns does she agree to give her human form - not without warning her: she will be mute in the human world and, should her love not find fulfilment, can only return to the water kingdom if she brings death to her beloved. In human form, Rusalka meets the prince, who is immediately fascinated by the beautiful stranger. Her fondest hopes seem to be fulfilled; she ignores the Water Sprite's renewed admonition.
Rusalka and the Prince enjoy their young happiness. The kitchen boy and the gamekeeper watch the amorous activity with suspicion: they do not trust the strange woman who, as Ježibaba has announced, cannot speak. While the gamekeeper is afraid of the sinister figures he suspects around every corner, the kitchen boy seeks comfort in the fact that the prince's new happiness will not last long. The supposed idyll is suddenly disturbed by the Foreign Princess. She mocks the mute Rusalka and ensnares the Prince, who - to Rusalka's horror - goes after the Foreign Princess. Rusalka is left alone.
Once again the Water Sprite warns Rusalka that she will not find happiness in the human world. In his presence Rusalka regains her speech for a moment and begs him to save her. With increasing bitterness, she realises that the Foreign Princess can give the Prince something that is denied to her: human passion. Caught between worlds, neither mermaid nor human woman, she can neither live nor die.
The Foreign Princess savours her triumph over Rusalka; the Prince, however, is plagued by his guilty conscience. When Rusalka confronts them, he harshly rejects her, but finds no fulfilment in the Foreign Princess either.
Rusalka bemoans her fate and in despair wishes for death. Once again she seeks out Ježibaba and asks for help, but at first she does not want to listen to the advice Ježibaba has for her: If Rusalka wants to be released from her situation, she must bring death to the prince. Rusalka's growing despair makes Ježibaba bitterly aware that a human being only becomes a human being when he spills the blood of others.
The kitchen boy and the gamekeeper approach Ježibaba fearfully: they want her to help the prince, who has been in a completely desolate state since Rusalka's departure. The Water Sprite interrupts them and announces his cruel revenge to the people.
In a final encounter, Rusalka and the prince meet. Knowing that it will cost him his life, he begs Rusalka for a kiss. She fulfils his wish.
Of Monsters and Humans
Director Dirk Schmeding, set designer Ralf Käselau and costume designer Julia Rösler discuss Rusalka.
Antonín Dvořák's Rusalka has been interpreted in many different ways: as a 'classical' fairy tale, but also, for example, as a story of abuse or a dysfunctional family tale. What was your first approach to this piece?
Dirk Schmeding: Of course, we dealt with the broad performance tradition - the material focuses very much on psychological issues. Nevertheless, one of our first decisions was that the fairy tale characters in this opera should remain fairy tale characters. With fairy tales, it's often more about how the story is told, about the embellishments, and less about having to tell the story differently or invent a different ending.
Julia Rösler: The fairy tale already offers us a kind of translation: If someone like Rusalka is different from other beings, what better way to represent that than by being the only one with a fishtail? As embodiments of fears, desires and longings, such characters are so present in the narrative tradition that one does not necessarily have to reinvent them. But then we gradually moved away from the classic fairy tale characters and turned to monster-like figures.
Ralf Käselau: We dealt a lot with monsters and the archetypes they represent - and with the social upheavals that accompanied the appearance of these figures.
DS: It was conspicuously often in times of crisis in which the narratives of monsters gained relevance and which tell us a lot about the fears of a society. The witch trials in the late Middle Ages are a good example. But other times have also created monstrous embodiments of their insecurities: the industrial revolution with Frankenstein's monster, the atomic age with Godzilla.
Apart from the aforementioned fishtail, what distinguishes humans from fairy tale or monster characters?
DS: The differences are smaller than one would think. Rusalka reports in the first act that the water sprite told her about the souls of humans. In the traditional tales, the Rusalky, the water creatures, have no souls - but you only have to hear Rusalka's yearning song to the moon once and you are already convinced of the opposite. The monsters have a rich, sensitive inner life in this opera and come off much better than the humans: The Prince and the Foreign Princess, but also the comic figures in the shape of Kitchen Boy and Heger hardly serve as positive identification figures.
JR: And precisely because the monster characters look so different, they allow for a different degree of empathy: because the distance created primarily by appearances enables the audience to look at the characters with more detachment and thus perhaps recognise more of themselves in them.
DS: There are always moments when you can dock onto these monsters. Who hasn't wanted to take on a new identity like Rusalka? But also the stuckness in a state, which is peculiar to Aquarius, or the disappointed, vengeful nature of Ježibaba create emotional points of connection.
In which worlds do the characters of this opera move?
RK: At the beginning, we assumed two separate worlds that collide in the shape of Rusalka and the Prince. But because we have to work without the chorus in the current situation, we have revised the concept and made it denser: not as the clash of two worlds, but by depicting a civilised fringe, an abandoned, exposed region that is, on the one hand, desolate, but on the other hand can be seen in a dark way as a poetic landscape of the soul. The forces of nature, water and the absence of water as well as the traces that man leaves in nature play an important role in this place. There, these monster creatures endure as if pushed to the edge. And it is there that the prince loses himself and meets Rusalka.
DS: The melancholy that characterises this place naturally spreads to the characters. In this landscape, one has the feeling that there may once have been a beautiful lake, but that it has gradually dried up - and now the characters who are stuck there do. For Rusalka, the absence of water is life-threatening, and the prince brings her the promise of departure and dynamism that is essential for survival.
Would a happy ending be conceivable for Rusalka and the prince outside this place?
JR: I rather think that they are doomed to failure. Ultimately, the two are so busy searching for themselves that they can't really meet their match at all - except to be disappointed and to disappoint each other.
RK: The prince's behaviour suggests that he should be dismissed as a superficial lightweight. But it was important to us to show this character and his longings clearly.
DS: And the two of them have fun together at first. For a moment, their relationship has such a light-heartedness that you wish it would work out. How quickly they then slide into the big crisis is a different question.
In Eastern European myths, Rusalka and the Water Sprite are familiar figures, though often less positively portrayed than in Dvořak's work. How do these two relate to each other?
DS: In our work, the Water Sprite is a much older being - and because of his experience and his age, he is at first a figure of respect for Rusalka, perhaps the only one who still conveys a sense of family and cohesion. When he repeatedly asks Rusalka to come with him and stay in the realm of her sisters, one gets the feeling that he is trying to hold something together over which he no longer has any control: All that remains for him is to admonish. Rusalka's relationship with him, however, is not only one of respect and affection, it is one of defiance.
JR: The fact that she doesn't let herself be stopped is important - often something bad has happened to the young women in the Rusalky myths, after which they return as vengeful water spirits. We didn't want to reduce this to a victim-perpetrator dualism, even if it becomes clear that the water beings are not suitable for idealisation either.
RK: With Rusalka, in particular, it is crucial to find the moments in which she resists, to show her drives, passions, her energy - even the destructive ones.
This is released by an ultimately somewhat enigmatic figure - the Foreign Princess ...
JR: Even if the prince is not just a lightweight, he is still very fickle, in the way he lets go of his beloved so quickly. In this sense, the Foreign Princess first tells us something about the prince, and then in a second instance about Rusalka, because the Foreign Princess embodies Rusalka's fear of not being enough for him.
DS: She acts like a catalyst who sets the disaster in motion by triggering something in the other two. And the fact that she doesn't appear in the midst of a large party, but as a completely singular apparition, gives her even more penetrating power. Suddenly she is the most fabulous figure of all, appearing and shaking everything up.
Between the humans and the monsters, the witch Ježibaba stands as a border crosser between the worlds…
DS: When you look at her music and lyrics, you get the feeling that she has had her experiences and disappointments with the world and has drawn a lot of destructive energy from them. With her desire to destroy, she brings an almost anarchic component into this world. The old pain that shines through in her makes the character more tangible in a way but excuses nothing.
JR: Maybe it works as a kind of anaesthetic: to ease her pain with the knowledge that others are going through the same thing.
RK: Or she already knows that Rusalka's dream cannot come true. It's not like Ježibaba is helping Rusalka by granting her the wish to become a human being. It is more of a perfidious game and in some places gives her the quality of a Shakespearean witch. Also, with her, you get the feeling that she can decide and act much more freely than the other characters.
DS: The freedom to do and say what you want is of course a privilege. And to be able to destroy what you want is also a privilege, albeit a questionable one. But that is a question of the moral lens through which one views it.
The questions were asked by Theresa Steinacker.