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The New Criterion

 

Rusalka v. Regietheater

May 20, 2014

By Heather Mac Donald

Controversy and Rusalka at the Met.


New York’s Metropolitan Opera triggered an outpouring of critical contempt this winter by reviving a traditional production of Antonin Dvorák’s fairy-tale opera Rusalka. The press’s enraged reaction to the Met’s sylvan setting starkly revealed the pressures on the house to embrace nihilistic European-style directing. But the critical bile was even more alarming as a sign of the shriveling aesthetic imagination among our purported guardians of culture.

For his eighth and final opera, Dvorák chose a libretto steeped in the rich European tradition of fairy and folk tale, genres which had long enchanted him. The young Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil drew on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine, as well as on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and Czech folklorists, to craft a tale of a beautiful water nymph who yearns to become human so as to unite with the handsome prince who swims in her forest pool. A local witch grants Rusalka her wish, but only if she give up her power of speech—a condition which proves fatal to her dream of lasting love.

Rusalka’s setting embodies two central elements of the European literary imagination: woods and water. These once-mysterious forces spawned an alternative world of mermaids, sylphs, witches, and gnomes, and gave birth to a vast artistic outpouring that includes such masterpieces of German Romanticism as Schubert’s song Der Erlkönig and his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, as well as such balletic classics as Swan Lake. The forest and moonlit pool are not tangential to Dvorák’s opera; they are written into the score. Rusalka first appears to a shimmering string motif of alternating thirds culled from a half-diminished seventh chord; this haunting, harmonically unstable motif bodies forth Rusalka’s rippling grotto pond. The surrounding woods are represented by the prince’s royal hunting horns and musical bursts of nocturnal life.

Dvorák and Kvapil lived during the last moments when the narrative conventions of fairy tale could be deployed non-ironically. No one would write such a delicate story today—as demonstrated by Disney’s recent animated movie Frozen, a nauseatingly feminist, you-go-girl reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s surreal Snow Queen. Rusalka is therefore all the more precious a legacy from a vanished fictional universe. And the Met’s 1993 production, by the director Otto Schenk, provides an unparalleled opportunity to enter that universe. The designer Günther Schneider-Siemmsen’s forest is like a silvered Corot glen brought to life. Oak branches twist in a lacy fractal geometry against a cloud-swept night-sky; Rusalka’s pool sparkles with undulating light. Rusalka’s father, the jade-green Water Gnome, emerges from beneath the pool’s glimmering surface like a land-locked Neptune, pearlescent droplets hanging from his long emerald beard and mane of curls. When the witch Ježibaba concocts her magical potion to make Rusalka human, a group of courteous woodland creatures—mice, dragonflies, and frogs—look on quietly with graciously folded feet and paws.

After Rusalka assumes corporeal form, the Prince falls instantly in love with her and takes her back to his castle for marriage, despite his qualms over her strange silence. His elegantly Baroque palace, another central icon in the European literary tradition, is seen only from the outside, glowing with candelabra against the dark forest. The Prince’s wedding guests dance a sensuous Polonaise (choreographed by Carmen De Lavallade), channeling the erotic desire that Rusalka so fatefully lacks. The Prince, despairing of ever winning the passion of his eerily wordless bride, turns his attentions to a hot-blooded foreign princess and thereby seals his doom, for Ježibaba had warned Rusalka that if her Prince should prove false, he would die and she would be damned.

Schenk’s staging and characterizations grow directly from the libretto. Rusalka (sung this year as usual, if somewhat blandly, by Renée Fleming) is poignantly innocent, terrified by the aggressive human society which her father had so urgently warned her against. The Water Gnome (the baritone John Relyea) is a compassionate father, grief-stricken at the Prince’s betrayal and his daughter’s humiliation. And the press was having none of it. James Jorden, writing in the New York Observer, and Zachary Woolfe, for The New York Times, could not contain their derision towards what they both preposterously termed Schenk’s Disneyesque vision. They also provided a clear blueprint of the type of “brilliant, contemporary-minded” interpretations, in Woolfe’s words, that they think the Met should mount instead. The lines could not have been more starkly drawn.

Here is Jorden’s description of his and Woolfe’s preferred Rusalka stagings:

For the Bavarian State Opera, . . . director Martin Kusej shunted aside the fairy tale plot in favor of a psychodrama suggested by the scandalous case of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman confined in a basement and sexually abused by her father for more than 20 years. [In Kusej’s production, Rusalka and other girls are imprisoned in the Water Gnome’s wet, filthy cellar.] Released from the fantasy world she has concocted in self-defense, Rusalka is overwhelmed by real life, ending up confined to a mental institution. Unsupervised for a moment, she murders the Prince, who is visiting her.

Or, if incest and sexual abuse do not satisfy your longings for transgression, you might enjoy the streetwalker and dirty old man version of Rusalka:

In a very different production seen recently in a number of European cities, director Stefan Herheim interprets the story as a Jungian dream. Rusalka is not a real woman or even quite a real character; rather, she is the projection of the insecure sexuality of the [Water Gnome] character. This secondary figure becomes the protagonist, not a shadowy water demon but rather an elderly working-class man who, prompted by a glimpse of the streetwalker Rusalka, relives his unhappy history of failed relationships with women. This version finishes with an eerie poetic touch: The [Water Gnome] is led away from the house where he has murdered his wife, and Rusalka, unscathed, attracts the attention of an onlooker to the tragedy.

Both of these productions, Jorden helpfully explains, present Rusalka as a “sort of embodiment of societal concerns about female sexuality.”

Where to begin? It should not be necessary to point out that absolutely nothing in these squalid rewritings of the opera conforms to Dvorák’s actual composition. If you want to stage an opera about the Fritzl case, by all means commission and produce it. But don’t pretend that Rusalka has the slightest relationship to that horrifying crime. We will leave aside the junking of the magical woodland setting, however central to the opera. The transplanted human characterizations simply make no sense. Far from tormenting his daughter, sexually or otherwise, the Water Gnome is desperate to protect her. His lament for her fate, “Beda, beda” (Woe, woe to Rusalka), is an achingly beautiful lullaby of paternal love, as mesmerizing an aria as Rusalka’s far more famous Song to the Moon. (Relyea, usually a dramatic performer, was surprisingly short on urgency and pathos here.) To turn the Water Gnome into a child abuser signals a compulsion to annihilate everything pure and replace it with gratuitous perversion.

As for the Herheim production, it is equally absurd to make the vulnerable, child-like Rusalka into a prostitute or even the “embodiment of societal concerns about female sexuality.” Far from representing a voracious man-eating sexuality, her veins run with the icy waters of her pool, she says. Nor is the Water Gnome “insecure” about his “sexuality,” to use Jorden’s hackneyed pop-psychological boilerplate. He does not kill his wife, if he even has one. Herheim blithely invents a character and her murder, just so he can introduce another incongruous noir element into the story.

Had Dvorák wanted to compose an opera about the sordid underside of “working-class” life, he could have done so. Czech composers had already imported verismo opera into Prague by the turn of the twentieth century. But Dvorák and his librettist deliberately chose the archaic idiom of fairy tale. If a director is not willing to respect that artistic decision, he should find himself another opera. This season the Met premiered Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a contemporary work about gay homicidal seduction over the Internet. A production that turned Two Boys into a seventeenth-century pastoral masque among shepherds and chaste shepherdesses would have set the commentariat howling over the betrayal of Muhly’s unambiguous directions. But of course no one would dare destroy a contemporary opera’s setting and plot, since the composer would rightfully fight back tooth and nail.

The press’s desire for transgressive productions grows in part out of its hatred for vanished conventions of chastity, nobility, and restraint. But it also represents a refusal to plunge headlong into imaginary worlds that bear little relationship to our own, and whose values do not necessarily conform to our progressive litmus tests. In another assault on the Met in The New York Times last December, Zachary Woolfe lauded a Madrid production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for “resonat[ing] with the damage and class resentment wrought by the global financial crisis, [and] the confusions of contemporary gender norms.” But Mozart did not give a damn about the “global financial crisis [and] the confusions of contemporary gender norms,” if for no other reason than that he lived two hundred years before such issues arose. There is no shortage of plays and movies about the “confusions of contemporary gender norms;” treatments of the “class resentment wrought by the global financial crisis” are sure to follow. To dragoon Mozart into aping such themes as well, rather than plumbing his works for what he was actually expressing, shrinks our aesthetic experience.

Revisionist directors and their press propagandists flatter themselves that by producing and writing about opera, they are engaged in searing political action. Here’s a secret: No staging of an opera, no matter how “ambitious,” as Woolfe would put it, will have the slightest effect on America’s class structure or gender norms. Nor will “ambitious” productions arrest the decline of classical music audiences. If only it were that simple. Critics are understandably bored by the lethal repetition of an inexcusably narrow slice of the musical canon and are desperate for something new. But while a postmodern production of Rigoletto will pique their interest, it is irrelevant to the masses of people who have never seen Rigoletto in the first place. The reason people are staying out of the opera and concert hall is more dire than is usually admitted: The musical language in those venues is actually off-putting to those who have been raised exclusively on pop. If the critics wanted to contribute to opera’s future health, they would be gathering ideas for how to acclimate more people’s ears to the basic building blocks of the classical repertoire—to Bach’s partitas, Mozart’s symphonies, Beethoven’s sonatas, and other loci of gorgeousness.

The assault on opera is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger attack on the humanistic tradition. The same solipsistic impulse that drives an opera director to ignore a composer’s intentions and force a work to ape his own shallow obsessions is also behind the gutting of humanistic study in the academy and its replacement by facile identity politics. Both travesties grow out of an adolescent insistence on making everything revolve around the self. The revisionist director and the identity-infatuated academic are destroying the promise of the arts: the possibility of losing oneself in beauty and in the radical difference of the past.

Original Source: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Rusalka-v--regietheater-7900

 

 
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