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In the wake of the seismic geopolitical shifts of the late 1980s, the collaboration with the unstoppable Russian maestro, Valery Gergiev, who for a decade, 1997 to 2008, was principal guest conductor at the Met, and the tide of Eastern European singers, finally allowed to flow freely into the United States, the map of the Met’s repertoire was redrawn. Between 1990 and 2014, and especially under general manager Joseph Volpe (1990-2006), the Slavic project premiered eight Russian and Czech works: Janáček, Kat’a Kabanová, The Makropulos Case, From the House of the Dead; Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Nose; Prokofiev, The Gambler, War and Peace; Tchaikovsky, Mazeppa. Eight others were reintroduced and/or more regularly revived: Borodin, Prince Igor; Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades; Janáček, Jenufa; Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina; Smetana, The Bartered Bride; Stravisnky, The Nightingale. Such was the astonishing musical turn towards Eastern Europe.
Our subject in this post is Rusalka (1900), which will be presented “Live in HD” on February 25 in a new production. Its composer, Antonín Dvořák, known primarily for his orchestral and chamber pieces, also left a corpus of ten operas, of which Rusalka is, by far, the most often performed. This fairy tale work was first produced at the Met in 1993 and has had five revivals since. It has proven to be the most popular of the Slavic novelties, due perhaps to the first interpreter of the title role, Gabriela Beňačková, and then to the affection of Renée Fleming for the part. At Beňačková’s Met debut, the Wall Street Journal went out on a long, justifiable limb: “This is the most ravishing voice in the world.” Beňačková won all hearts with Rusalka’s apostrophe to the moon. Here she sings the exquisite melody in a 1988 Prague concert.
At Rusalka’s Met premiere, Dvořák’s aria was already familiar to many in the audience. They had heard it as a recital showpiece favored by lyric sopranos. A transcription of a 1950 San Francisco concert conducted by Pierre Monteux preserves for subsequent generations the wondrous timbre and the soaring ease of Dorothy Maynor whose public appearances were confined to the concert halls of Europe, and the U.S. and Latin America. An African-American artist, she was excluded from the operatic stages of her native country.
A few words for those unacquainted with the libretto. Rusalka, a wood nymph, has fallen in love with a prince who swims in her lake. She addresses her desire to the moon in her Act I aria, and begs a witch to transform her into a human being. In exchange, Rusalka is obliged to renounce the power of speech. The Prince arrives, falls in love, and carries her off to his castle. But by the time of the wedding he tires of his silent betrothed and betrays her with a Foreign Princess. In the final act, Rusalka returns to her lake and regains her voice. The repentant Prince begs for a last kiss, knowing that it will kill him. Rusalka reluctantly grants his wish, and mournfully sinks into the depth of the water. Here is their final duet sung by Kristina Opolais (the Met’s current Rusalka) and Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch, who is at present scheduled for a Met debut.