Swans Commentary » swans.com March 8, 2010  



Ruminations On Rusalka, The Ring, Cyrano, And Shreker - Part I


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - March 8, 2010)   While the events reported in this article took place as many as six years ago during my pre-Swans period, nevertheless their subject matter remains quite timely today. Inasmuch as Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, Wagner's Ring, and a Shreker opera are enjoying current and future productions in New York City and State, a bit of unabashed recycling might be welcomed as apropos.

In early May of 2004 at 7:30 in Lincoln Center Plaza in New York City I watched on a giant screen from a large area of folding chairs the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast in honor of the 100th birthday of the illustrious Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983). It was taking place live just inside at the New York State Theater. I watched and heard Placido Domingo singing and principal New York Philharmonic cellist Carter Brey "chelling" Tchaikovsky's None but the Lonely Heart, purportedly Balanchine's favorite song. The amazing Domingo had just sung as part of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle of four music dramas a resplendent Sigmund in Die Walkuere just one door down around the square the night before (which I attended) but here he was, having traveled down one building to participate in the birthday honors. And he was just as radiant as ever, and many could have learned from his clearest of English diction. But soon a sprinkling of rain and the curtain time for Dvorak's opera Rusalka (1901) both appeared and it was time to move on to the next delight at the Metropolitan Opera.

The long tradition of feminine sea creatures exerting overpowering sexual attraction upon helplessly drawn-in human males is as old as the epic of the Odyssey and as young as the movie Splash (1984). Somewhere along that long line of stories, circa 1900, lies Dvorak's most famous opera of the approximately 10 which he wrote, Rusalka. I saw this opera for the first time in my life during my operatic orgy of May 2004, which included besides Rusalka, the entire Wagner Ring and Mozart's Don Giovanni. I believe the Met had opened the first of their three performances of Rusalka of this season to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the death of Dvorak on May 1, 1904.

Watching a traditional opera of normal length and spans of activity during an exposure to the Ring, during which Wagner takes inordinate lengths of time to get from one point to another, is like watching an old time movie in fast motion. During my one previous exposure to a complete Ring cycle, back at the Bayrische Staatsoper in Munich in 1958-59, I had the same feeling while watching an interspersed Turandot (1924) of Puccini. No sooner had Puccini made his points than he was off immediately in another direction of his story, leaving me breathless.

The many beautiful and touching points in Rusalka are dealt with in a traditional Italian, Verdi-like style though of course heavily colored by Dvorak's own melodic idiom based on Czech folkloric expression. But the shadow of Wagner, and especially of the Ring, lies quite heavily over Rusalka, only to be expected in late 19th-century/early 20th-century European opera composition. This is made even more obvious when the Ring itself is being viewed simultaneously as I was doing that week. Rusalka opens with three female water sprites in conversation with a waterbound male water gnome, Rusalka's father. The gnome makes futile efforts to catch the sprites. I had the unmistakable feeling that I was back at the opening of Das Rheingold two nights before with Alberich and the Rhinemaidens.

In the second act, when Rusalka is forced to give up her supernatural powers and be separated from her water sprite sisters as a result of her sexual attraction to a human man, I thought I was back in Die Walkuere the night before in which Brunnhilde faced a similar fate in relation to her sisters, the other Walkuere. Tonight I saw Siegfried; and when in the third act the awakened Brunnhilde at first insists on an unimpassioned love to Siegfried I thought to myself that's just how Rusalka lost her human prince to a rival because she seemed too impassionate to his very human nature. But it was not just the Ring which Dvorak seemed to be retelling. When the ghostly and doomed Rusalka in the final act gives in to the lovesick prince and grants him that kiss that they both know will kill him I felt I was on a distant shore with that other pair of doomed lovers, Tristan und Isolde.

But by far the most astonishing moment in Rusalka for me occurred near the opening of the opera's most famous aria, the Song to the Moon (sung superbly, as was the whole evening, by Renee Fleming). When Rusalka's music rises the octave "do-do" and then drops to the "ti-sol" what other quite famous piece of music flies into my head but the identically-beginning Somewhere over the Rainbow from the movie The Wizard of Oz of 1939. But not only the musical identity strikes me but also the fact that the psychological situation of the two parallel heroines is virtually identical. Both want to leave their present situations; Rusalka the water and become human, and Dorothy Kansas for a better place. One request hangs its plea on the moon, the other on the rainbow. Did composer Harold Arluck/Arlen know this aria, even subconsciously? Had he as a boy growing up in Buffalo in the 1920s listened to the Song to the Moon on old 78s?

True, Dvorak's fellow Czech predecessor Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) had used something like this theme in his symphonic poem Die Moldau (1875) to symbolize the Vyeserad Castle, (the rising octave in Dvorak's version is a rising 4th in Smetana's) but still the remarkable use of this theme by another composer 40 years after Dvorak's and in another country could bear some investigation. It would be similar to the time when Broadway stole the melody ca 1920 of Puccini's E lucevan le stelle from Tosca (1900) and turned it into the popular hit, Avalon. When Puccini's American publisher Ricordi took the Tin Pan Alley thieves to court the American judge agreed with the plaintiffs that simply changing the song to its major tonality and speeding up the tempo was not enough to hide the plagiarism and Ricordi won its case. Today on one Internet site Puccini is credited as the composer and the "arrangement" as Avalon is by Al Jolson and Vincent Rose.

During my Ring week the city of balladeers, buskers, and beggars (preachers too if there were only a word starting with "b" to include them in this list) lived up to its reputation. Whether on the platforms of subways or wandering from car to car in search of financial support: saxophonists, blues singers, preachers, and hard luck storytellers serenaded/harangued me and my other captive fellow travelers frequently and regularly in the depths of the New York City transportation system. To the list of subway balladeers add a performer on the musical saw who entertained us post-Goetterdaemmerung travelers last night. Sometimes we were simply faced with silent folks with nothing to say or sing, but hoping for a handout anyway. For the most part, however, my fellow subway farers seemed to be serious hard-working folk, some of them having to spend up to four hours per day in those subways having to get to and from minimum-wage-paying jobs. A front page New York Times story described this phenomenon just while I was in New York.

Many hearing about my rides to and from my accommodation, in a place known as Remsen Village in Brooklyn, will feel some unease at the fact that my fellow subway riders were practically 100% black. However, curb that racism! Not a problem (knock on wood). The population seemed to be Caribbean. I heard French spoken and French-language newspapers were read during my trips by folks from Haiti. My own landlady was from British Guiana. One cab driver who shuttled me home after a late night subway ride gave me a lesson in the patois of Jamaica.

The people one meets at opera intermissions add flavor to the whole experience. I met a group of three "Ring mavens," each of whom made it a project to track down complete performances of the Ring anywhere in the world and attend them. One Canadian who had grown up in London attending Covent Garden productions counted the present Ring as his 13th! At the Met's presentation of Hector Berlioz's (1803-1869) Benvenuto Cellini (1838) in October 2003, whom should I meet at intermission but Lyndis Taylor, musical commentator for the Wellington NZ Evening Post who had done a feature article on my wife Ann and me 10 years earlier during our stay in New Zealand and with whom I hadn't been in contact since! This trip's serendipitous reunion was with Sammy Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard Quartet. We reminisced about the group's last concert in Nacogdoches, Texas, at my university a few seasons back.

I engaged the pre-opera lecturer in various conversations. He was the head of the music history department at Juilliard. There are two very odd moments in the plot of the Ring. One of them occurs in the first act of Goetterdaemmerung when Siegfried disguised as Gunther commands Brunnhilde to come with him as his bride. At no time during this confrontation does Brunnhilde ever mention Siegfried's name nor indicate that she was already "married" to him. Surely such a declaration to a noble suitor would have stifled any interest he might have had in acquiring previously used goods had he been the real person he purported to be. Either Wagner nodded or deliberately chose to omit this information from Brunnhilde's lips. This would have sent the plot in an entirely unuseful direction.

The other puzzling ramification of the plot concerns the half-sibling relationship between Gunther, Hagen, and Gutrune, members of the Gibichung clan, likewise in Goetterdaemmerung. We learned in Siegfried that Alberich had, through money bribery, forced Hagen's mother to bear him a son. And yet in Goetterdaemmerung all the siblings seem to have a most cordial relationship. That the supposed wife of Gibich could have been forced by the déclassé dwarf Alberich to do anything seems hard to believe. And if this forced birthing had taken place before the mother's marriage to Gibich why would Gibich have married a non-virgin unwed mother with a child in hand?

Well, suppose that the mother had kept the baby a secret in order to marry Gibich. Suppose that he was being raised by Alberich somewhere else as Mime had raised Siegfried. Then at what point did Hagen enter the Gibichung family circle as a normal family member? And how could the legitimate children of the presumably departed Gibich and his widow accept this illegitimate bastard into their family and even look up to him for his wisdom? The lecturer opined that after Gunther and Gutrune had been born and while they were little children Gibich had died and his widow was forced by straitened circumstances to give in to Alberich's force. She could simply have added Hagen to her now three-child family before Gunther and Gutrune could develop any adverse opinions on the matter. Well then, how did Hagen develop his negative personality? Did Alberich come around from time to time showing his face and training the child to be so mean and cruel? Was he just "Uncle Alberich" to the children? There's a lot to think about in this matter, a dotted "i" or crossed "t" that Wagner seems to have omitted.

In any case, Siegfried was sung and acted magnificently in both his operas by tenor Jon Frederic West. Would that the stage sets had been as inspired as the singing and great James Levine-led orchestral playing. Like the whole second act of Goetterdaemmerung itself, in the opinion of George Bernard Shaw, the whole thing was an embarrassment from beginning to end. In this day and age of films, television, video games, computer-assisted imaging, etc., in short, all the devices that Wagner himself might have used had they been available to him to create his artwork of the future, what we had were conventionally unimaginative and traditional surroundings for our magnificently singing and performing artists ranging from the inept to the ludicrous.

From the transformation dragon in Das Rheingold, which never showed its face but spitted out a few random sparks, to the dragon in Siegfried, whose supposed fire breathing came out as octopus-like tentacles, to the non-existent never-appearing horse Grane in Goetterdaemmerung, so often referred to and called up into action in the text, to the audible and distracting behind-stage scenery moving during Siegfried's funeral music, to the audible and distracting crashing to doom of Valhalla behind the curtain, sounding like a bunch of furniture being tossed down the stairs, and, finally, to the cleared-up final vision of the ruins being visited by ghostly and unidentified characters just inside the curtain: the whole thing was a ghastly mismatch to the valiant efforts being put forth by all the other participants in the event. Without going to Chéreau-like lengths to demonstrate some aptly imaginative effects surely somebody with more talent might have been employed for the job. You might remember the 1976 Patrice Chéreau (1944 - ) Ring production at Bayreuth conducted by Pierre Boulez (1925 - ) in which the characters were updated to Victorian times and costumes and dozens of supernumeraries unmentioned by Wagner milled about the stage to no apparent purpose.

Emotionally, for me the high point of the whole Ring was the Waltraute-Brunnhilde scene in the first act of Goetterdaemmerung where Waltraute describes the picture of the defeated Wotan at Walhalla and urges Brunnhilde to give back the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. The intensity of Brunnhilde's love for Siegfried as she expresses it of course makes Waltraute's request impossible. This scene pits the forces of delayed justice overcoming greed, deceit, and money power versus love to their highest contention and left me in tears. That this scene should be followed by the operatic claptrap of the second act with its potions, oaths, and vengeance trios borrowed from the lumber of the French grand opera made me almost want to leave the theater. Fortunately the drama reverted to its higher plane in act three. We were reminded again that the whole project got started in 1848 with the plot of the libretto Siegfried's Todt, which only later morphed into Goetterdaemmerung. And in those early days Wagner seemed to have been still under the thrall of operatic conventions; conventions, which the sophistication of the musical effects that he had learned in the 20+ years leading to its musical conclusion as Goetterdaemmerung, were unable to overcome. (The lecturer kept pronouncing it as "Getter-DAY-merung," much to my annoyance. But I suppressed the urge to improve his German.)


(Read Part II)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 8, 2010