Rusalka: an ancient warning for modern times

An opening night at the opera, Glyndebourne, 29 June 2019

In 1899 the Bohemian Czech Jaroslav Kvapil finished writing the storyline and lyrics for the drama Rusalka, as the libretto for an opera, and began looking for someone to compose the music for it. He drew on ancient fairy-tales, but in his mind were great questions of governance, power and accountability. This was an era of decaying multi-national empires, including the Habsburg of which Bohemia was a part, where tensions between the rights of local peoples and the rights of over-arching authority were in everyone’s minds. A few years later, Kvapil was to sign the Manifesto of Czech Writers, which expressed the yearning of a self-aware people to be free. Meanwhile, though, he was exploring similar themes by unearthing shimmering veins of meaning in the rich loam of folklore and faerie. And those themes are ours today, as much as his then, because they are everyone’s everywhere.

A glance at Aboriginal Australia makes this clear, for the Dreaming Law created tens of millennia ago contains the same principles of autonomy that peoples still strive to articulate and defend (see: Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture, by Deborah Bird Rose, Cambridge, 1992: 45-55). Here no species, group, or country can command another, since each adheres to its own Law; to be a centre is not to dominate, but to have one’s own perspective; there are no orders from above because there is no above; and in each country the Law manifests an eternal, stable relationship between nature and humanity. Each part of every system shares responsibility for sustaining itself, for learning to understand, for paying attention, and for balancing every other part. The processes of ecology weave themselves through these countries, as rivers, evolutionary relationships, mountains, aquifers, migrating birds and breeding crocodiles, and are represented by the adventures of Dreamtime creation beings that are shared by all peoples, unifying them. This symbolic, ecological universe was being ruined by Europeans in Australia while Kvapil wrote his libretto, just as the land of faerie was being oppressed by modernity in Europe itself.

All this is reflected in Kvapil’s choice of myth and the characters to represent classes of beings and relationships in Rusalka. There is Vodník (Alexander Roslavets), the ruling spirit of a lake: absolute monarch of that one ecosystem of aquatic water-nymphs or naiads, co-equal with the ruling beings of all other natural spheres, and relating on those terms to a vaster natural ecosystem of witches and wood-nymphs or dryads. There is Rusalka (Sally Matthews) herself, his daughter who pines for a different, mortal, human life. And there is Ježibaba (Patricia Bardon), the witch. These names are all personified symbols: in Czech, vodník means ‘shape-shifting water spirit-creature’ (or something like the Loch Ness monster, say, in our terms), just as rusalka means ‘water-sprite’ (or perhaps mermaid) and ježibaba means ‘witch’ (or any figure that the Christian tradition uses to demonise female knowledge and power outside Church control). Against these mythical materials, Kvapil opposes others, all numinous but all refracted through the distorting lens of human Christian thought.

Thus the Prince (Evan LeRoy Johnson), representing an utterly different idea of universal relative status, blunders into Vodník’s world, hunting and killing his way into the forest with a party of humans. They understand nothing of where they are, or why they should care, or what’s up with their Prince, who seems to be searching for something that only he can sense the existence of. Seeing him, Rusalka projects her own yearning onto him, and bewitches herself, just as he will presently do in response to her. This is the moment when the ecosystem breaks, when Law falls into madness.

Kvapil found in Antonín Dvořák a composer skilled and subtle enough to illuminate this story with the most sublime, powerful and sensitive music. Between them, and the fabulous singers in this production, they articulate the whole bitter tale in a way that is a painful joy to experience. For Rusalka becomes obsessed, begging Ježibaba to help her abandon her own nature, as well as Nature and Law, so that she can experience a human life instead. The witch pretends reluctance, but it is her role to facilitate transformations – as witches do, presiding over the generations, initiations and transmutations of life, most of which are female, horrible, painful, and necessary. After Rusalka’s obsession proves immune to the dire warnings of Vodník, the witch and her sisters summon the powers of change, warping the very fabric of the ecosystem (represented on stage by the toppling of its trees, like a collapsing pine forest over melting permafrost), and ripping the hearts, eye-balls, wings and other organs from its quivering wildlife. These sacrifices are stirred into a boiling iron womb, into which Rusalka is also eventually fed. She will emerge, bereft of swimming tail, unsteady on her new feet, and not possessing human speech, to meet her new destiny as a bewildered, yearning woman in the arms of a bewildered, yearning Prince.

For the audience, these terrible sights are leavened by a champagne-break amid the flowering paradise of the Glyndebourne gardens. We can imagine what Rusalka went through no more than we can sense what went on in the pupae that broke open to release the bees and butterflies who are around us in the summer afternoon. Also, we don’t yet know how badly it will turn out. But back in the auditorium, the forest lake has been transformed into a castle kitchen. Humans are drawing and quartering wildlife, and chatting among themselves as they work. The castle gamekeeper (Colin Judson) marches in, unslinging a cross-bow and handing out dead animals for butchering. He and his niece (Alix Le Saux) sing about the strange, silent creature that the Prince has brought back from the forest, and that he intends to possess through the sacrament of marriage. Meanwhile, the aristocratic guests of imperial Bohemia gather behind and around them for the wedding party.

The kitchen table duly becomes a banquet hall, a runway for the fashionable dance-guests of the wedding ball, a marriage bed strewn with the red roses of lust and blood. Rusalka, looking more bewildered and yearning than any human ever has before, is trying to wear heels and a misshapen white wedding dress, is trying to learn how to dance like everyone else, is trying to convey her feelings to the Prince, and is utterly confused by every signal, as is the Prince himself. Rusalka becomes more and more desperate, the Prince more and more impatient, the guests more and more patronising. Prince and Rusalka are locked into a binary orbit the unbearable tension of which is almost resolved as Rusalka sheds her panties in a desperate effort at communication and bonding. But a glamorous foreign Princess (Zoya Tsererina) intervenes and makes a pass at the Prince, who is briefly distracted by the thought of a relationship that he can at least understand.

Nothing can last, because the Law is in ruins. Rusalka flutters around the candle-flame of her human love. Vodník manifests to observe the ball, which under his gaze is held in slow-motion ordinary time while he mourns for his daughter in faerie time, before taking her away, back to the forest and the lake. The foreign princess, sensing that the Prince is already broken by madness, spits him out with shrill curses. And so the second Act ends in smoking ruins, with the trembling audience retreating to the picnic gardens to try to make sense of it all, perhaps more sensitive than before to brief movements in the undergrowth as they forage among the crystals, patés and cheeses. They gather their energies for whatever lies ahead.

There, Kvapil and Dvořák have laid a most intricate trap. We knew it would go ill for nature, but here comes Rusalka to greet her sister naiads, with their writhing tails dangling from the water surface high above, who reject her utterly and for ever. Here is a damaged, charred Rusalka begging restoration from Ježibaba, who offers her relief only at the price of hot human blood freed by the dagger that she offers, which Rusalka cannot accept. Here are the gamekeeper and his niece, come to seek Ježibaba’s help to heal their Prince of his madness, but they are spurned by the witches and are taken instead by the wood-nymphs, who strip with them, dance with them, and bloodily consume the gamekeeper’s heart. Here the imagery and music pass beyond understanding, as the wild-haired conductor (Robin Ticciati) dances in the pit with the instruments of pain and pleasure. Somehow, the idea is conveyed that the great virtue of being mortal is the opportunity to die, to bring suffering to an end and to participate in furthering the endless cycles of life.

And so before long … here runs a beautiful exhausted doe, her tall ears rotating as the human hunters approach, until she dies at last, reflecting the fall of Rusalka herself who has vanished deep into a corner of the lake. There she contemplates eternity as a will-o-wisp, one of the swamp stars fired by the methane of decay that lure men to their deaths by night. And here comes the Prince, blundering and staggering, demented and exalted. He sings of his guilt and of his loss. Humanity self-pityingly recognising that his actions have ruined Nature, begging forgiveness, knowing that she can never again be the sustaining all-mother that she was while the Law still held. And Rusalka responds from the muddy depths, gradually emerging, beautiful, hopeless, broken, understanding. She can only offer humanity death as a release from guilt, and the Prince gratefully accepts her gift, dying with a kiss in her arms.

Rusalka then, neither lawful sprite nor human, considers the constellation of swamp-stars among which she will rot for ever, and plods off to join them. The music seals the tale with perfection, and we are left to think: how unnecessary the quest, how pitiful the outcome, how foolish the choices that brought us to this insane, unlawful result where nothing will ever be whole again. For make no mistake: whether or not it was once about empires crushing the indigenous peoples and lifeways of mediaeval Europe, this whole story is nowabout modern humanity destroying the living world in arrogance and greed, reckless of our own vulnerability and dependency upon nature. We have broken every law, polluted the oceans and atmosphere, driven a million wild species a year into extinction, ignored all warnings, and are at last starting to realise that we have lost what we most pretended to love. We are now blundering around in anger, and will soon start snivelling. But Nature is now too damaged to offer us anything more than the kiss of death, before she plods off to exist as best she can amid the methane fires of the melted Arctic.

The second viewing (20 July 2019)

Everything worked just a bit better with practice and tweaking. Excellent on the opening night, three weeks later Rusalkawas fascinating, moving and brilliant. What I wrote before can stand, but I saw more detail: how the sacrificial animals were torn from the wood nymphs like vivisected daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; the cursing of the Prince by Vodník at the end of the ball; the doe as a guide between human and faerie. Above all, the acting of Rusalka herself, struck dumb by metamorphosis, had reached a new level of heart-breaking perfection. Half the audience were crying by the end, including us. The lady on the door murmured her sympathy as we filed out. The talk around us was all of beauty and despair. We couldn’t resist joining some conversations. In one, a shaken observer noted that the music was so expressive that it drove the story-telling to a sublime ending “that left us to meditate on what we had just witnessed”, and that the performance was one of those very rare moments “when an opera is a true combination of acting and theatre and text and music all together and not separately”. I can vouch for that. It was far more emotionally potent than before. I suspect that other operas will feel like light entertainment after this. So I think I’ll get back to my day job now: fighting climate chaos, mass extinction, and the brutalisation of nature and ourselves. Viva Greta!

© Julian Caldecott