I am a huge opera fan. I grew up going to the opera with my mother. Carmen was my first opera experience and while it’s not one of my favorites, it certainly left a vivid impression on my imagination. Somewhere I have pictures of 8 year old me dressed up as Carmen for Halloween. Looking back on it, I’m not sure Carmen was quite the appropriate persona for an 8 year old to try and embody, but… Carmen opened the door to the wonderful world of opera for me ever after.
Strangely enough, New Orleans does not seem to have a lot of opera, even though it was the first place in America to have one! This year there are only two being shown here. (And sadly enough, the first one is happening while Kenny and I are at Pantheacon next week. Come out and say hi!) So…I’m really glad that the AMC movie theaters are presenting The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. If you’re an opera fan and aren’t familiar with this series, you’re missing out. AMC streams the New York Metropolitan Opera live during one of their performances and then presents an encore two weeks later. You get a front row seat for some of the most beautifully put together operas in the world.
This week, they presented Dvorak’s Rusalka. This is one of my favorite operas, which has one of my favorite arias. Renee Fleming, who considers “Song to the Moon” to be one of her signature arias, performs the lead character, Rusalka. (This is also a fitting topic for the Olympics this week).
Mesiku na nebi hlubokem
Svetlo tve daleko vidi,
Po svete bloudis sirokem,
Divas se v pribytky lidi.
Mesicku, postuj chvili
reckni mi, kde je muj mily
Rekni mu, stribmy mesicku,
me ze jej objima rame,
aby si alespon chvilicku
vzpomenul ve sneni na mne.
Zasvet mu do daleka,
rekni mu, rekni m kdo tu nan ceka!
O mneli duse lidska sni,
at’se tou vzpominkou vzbudi!
Mesicku, nezhasni, nezhasni!
Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people’s homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.
For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don’t disappear, disappear!
Not only is this a beautiful invocation of the Moon, but I love the story and the explanation of the Rusalka in the opera.
In traditional fairy lore, the Rusalka is a Russian fairy who lures young men to their deaths in ponds and streams. She is very similar to Jenny Greenteeth and the Lorelei. The Rusalka lives at the bottom of waterways and comes out at night to dance on the shores. If she saw a handsome man, she would capture him with her beauty and song and lure him to a watery grave.
In Russian myth, the Rusalka is the spirit of a woman who died young, usually from suicide or during a pregnancy. The great grief that caused the death ensured the young woman’s spirit would linger.
Rusalkas don’t just lure young men to an early grave, they also bless the surrounding fields with abundance and fertility. In many ways, the Rusalka are very similar to the mermaids of Western European lore. They like to sit in trees or on docks and sing music, siren like, calling men to their doom.
In June, the Rusalka are supposedly at their most dangerous. They come out of their waters and dance and swing through birch (a tree that banishes evil and builds courage) and willow (a tree of enchantment and music that is often seen as a tree for female rites of passage) trees. Many women go out during Rusal’naia and leave offerings to appease the Rusalka and also set out protective charms to ward them off. No one swims during this week, just in case… People also do a ritual with a birch tree, where a tree is brought in from the forest and is seen to represent the vegetative power of the land. Young women dance and sing around the birch, making it promises for the coming year. At the end of the week, the semik as it is called, is drowned, to ensure that the land will have enough water throughout the rest of the year.
The Rusalkas are a particularly femininely inspired spirit.
In the opera, Rusalka falls in love with a human prince who hunts around her lake. She goes to her father, a water-goblin and begs him to tell her how she can be with the prince. Even though he warns her that it’s a bad idea, he sends her to the witch Ježibaba, who can turn her into a human woman. Ježibaba warns Rusalka that if she becomes human, she will lose the ability to speak (gee, where have we heard this story before?) and if the prince betrays her, both she and the prince will be damned. Rusalka drinks the potion that Ježibaba has given her and the Prince finds her and takes her home with him.
The Prince plans the wedding, but many people in his household suspect witchcraft and treat Rusalka badly. A foreign princess comes to the wedding and slowly lures the prince away. When it looks like the prince will choose Rusalka over her, the foreign princess curses them and the prince finally rejects Rusalka. Rusalka flees back to her father and the foreign princess scorns the prince. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she kills the prince, she can save herself, but Rusalka refuses, throwing the dagger that Ježibaba has given her into the lake. Her grief and rage turn her into a spirit of death, and Rusalka begins haunting the lake. The Prince comes to the lake searching for Rusalka. He begs her to kiss him, even though he knows that it means his death. He dies and Rusalka’s father comments “All sacrifices are futile.” Rusalka thanks the dead prince for allowing her to experience human love. She returns to the lake, forever after an evil fairy.
I think the moral of the story is that love changes us and not always for the better. It’s a force that can have long lasting consequences. So love well and be faithful, otherwise you might end up as an evil fairy in a dreary lake forever luring young men off to die and seriously, who wants that?