Revisting The Mermaid

John Reinhard Weguelin – Mermaid (1911)
John Reinhard Weguelin – Mermaid (1911)

I love The Metropolitan Opera and am determined to catch more than one production this summer! But while I work on that, here’s a look at its incarnation of a classic fairy tale.

The Met does amazing productions – elaborate sets, brilliant costuming, full orchestra – but Rusalka is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have. Renee Fleming doesn’t sing for most of the 2nd act!

The libretto is based on a Czech fairy tale as well as Anderson’s story. Dvorak’s music is lyrical and charming, in striking contrast to the dark tale and dark set of green and shadows. Clever staging suggests underwater with mermaids running up and down levels in costumes of fluttery green scarves.

Rusalka tells her father, the Water Goblin, she wants to be mortal to be with the prince, Renee’s lovely ornate soprano hitting notes of pathos and beauty, John Relyea’s bass voice the note of concern for his daughter. He’s at stage level; she’s elevated like her dreams of becoming mortal and falling in love. Her Song to the Moon is frequently sung as solo piece and the true appeal of opera, the emotion of longing, the poignant lament calling for love, captured in sound.

Ježibab, the Sea Witch, is the traditional hag in dark robes and the 1st suggestion of the demands of this opera. The transformation scene is the over-the-top staging only the Met can pull off with kids as giant frogs and bugs, even a rat or two, leaping around the stage. Renee rolls on stage level to show the struggle to stand as Dolora Zajick jumps and laughs to the crescendo in evil glee. Who says opera singers can’t act?

The Mermaid, 1910, Howard Pyle.
The Mermaid, 1910, Howard Pyle.

The cost of Rusalka’s dream is her voice. She won’t be able to speak to her prince but still must convince him to love her. Opera always takes it a step further of course – if Rusalka returns to the water, the prince dies as well. But of course, the prince falls in love with the now dancing, but silent Rusalka as the lighting changes from green to brown. In an unusual twist, Piotr Beczala sings of love in a powerful solo, not a duet.

Act 2 opens with the conventional comic turn between servants who sigh over water nymphs while worrying over the Prince’s obsession. But not to worry, another princess has arrived to set him straight.

I have to say it’s weird not to hear Renee. The ballroom scene feels incomplete without her soprano accent. The prince complains in his powerful tenor that he can’t understand her and has doubts. You can laugh about the guy who complains women don’t talk, but his anguish is genuine, and of course, Rusalka can’t respond at all when the Foreign Princess reminds the Prince of his duty. Rusalka is literally lost, wandering among dancing courtiers as the Water Goblin returns to reclaim his daughter.

Now a bludička, a Czech death spirit that lives in lakes, Rusalka regains her voice and Rene delivers all the anguish and despair of a love affair gone wrong with her trademark dramatic soprano. The Foreign Princess quite rightly rejects the Prince as a two-timing cad on a dark stage in one of those brilliant moments in opera when multiple voices are singing completely different songs in glorious harmony .

betweenlandandseacoverAct 3 drags a little. The servants from earlier show up to ask Ježibab’s advice about the prince, but they’re just not that funny. After frankly distracting interludes by the servants and other water nymphs, the Prince shows up hunting Rusalka. He begs for her kiss and she warns him of death in their fist and final duet. Rusalka leaves him dead on the shore and sings of forgiveness as she returns to the dark waters.

What can I tell you? The original folk tale didn’t end well either. However, for a fun version of the Little Mermaid that ends happily ever after, see Joanne Guidoccio’s Between Land and Sea. In her story, the little mermaid is a middle-aged woman, and you know we’re not putting up with silly drama!

More fun opera notes –

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