This is not Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid’

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Renée Fleming in the title role and John Relyea as the Water Sprite in Dvorák’s “Rusalka.”

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Antonin Dvorák’s “Hymn to the Moon” sets a drippingly romantic tone for his operatic fairy tale, “Rusalka.” Early in Act I, the title character, a pining water nymph, sings this famous aria and sets a tone of longing and desperation.

Rusalka loves a handsome, vapid and all-too-human prince. True to fairytale logic, she has fallen so hard she’s willing to give up everything to be in his arms. In the Slavic fairy tale – on which the Czech opera is based – the story harks back to ancient mermaid myths. From the Greek Nereids to Undine, not to mention Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a supernatural sprite willingly abandons her magical kingdom, gives up immortality, and along the way, her ability to speak – all for Prince Not-so-Charming. Silly girl, but that’s the old mermaid-princess fantasy for you.

Dvorák’s music is as lush as Romantic music can be and will be heard in the MET Live in HD transmission on Saturday at Fort Lewis College. If you love Romantic music and are easily seduced or fascinated by fairy tales, you’ll want to see this storybook production.

With soprano Renee Fleming singing the title role, one she has owned for more than a decade, “Rusalka” follows the story faithfully, right through to its dark and damp ending. The Met has recently been criticized for its tenacious adherence to the conventional staging crafted in 1993 by designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The sets could be described as poetic realism with moss-laden trees surrounding a lake shimmering under a full moon. And that’s only Act 1. A luxurious castle sits nearby and is the setting for Act. 2. By then, the beautiful Rusalka has more or less bagged the Prince while a jealous foreign princess threatens to ruin things.

European opera houses have updated “Rusalka” by giving the work a modern interpretation. Last February at London’s Royal Opera House, the sprite’s forest pond morphed into an urban brothel with Rusalka seeking respectability by marrying up. The Daily Telegraph described Act 1 as consisting of “girls running around in their scanties.” In Act 2, when the Prince dispatched his wedding tux and slipped into T-shirt and jeans, the audience booed. Many walked out at intermission. Another London critic suggested closing one’s eyes and enjoying the music.

That gruff kind of reinterpretation may underscore the abuse and duplicity in the story. To this critic, it’s nowhere near the damage done by the Disneyfication of “The Little Mermaid.” Disney’s animated musical of the Andersen classic sanitized an ancient tale and turned a tragedy into yet another princess tale with a Hollywood ending.

What’s interesting about mermaid myths is the yearning of the outsider, the duplicity of her father in objecting to forbidden love then arranging for a sorceress to cut a deal. Rusalka, Undine, etc. sacrifice a lot. The caveat that if the prince betrays her or simply tires of her and cheats with another of his class, the mermaid will pay a further price. Say, what?

The Met production sticks with the original Slavic tale and stages the opera in old-fashioned storybook style. “Rusalka” runs four hours with two intermissions. Sung in Czech, the English subtitles will guide you through the fantasy. Bring or buy your lunch in the Student Union as you immerse yourself in this swampy tale. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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