Today I made the trek to the Marcus South Shore multiplex to see Rusalka, the Met Live in HD simulcast of the performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. $24 for a four-hour experience, including two ample intermissions. It was, for me, a powerful experience. This is only the second Met Live in HD production I've seen, and, not coincidentally, the second time I've understood the fuss about opera. Renee Fleming's voice was luscious and buttery, all the other singers were very good, and the production, though old-fashioned, made consistent dramatic sense--though I must admit the wood nymphs put me to sleep whenever they appeared. Maybe their musical theme has a powerful effect on the sleep centers of my brain, or maybe the lack of dramatic momentum during their frolics just gave me an opportunity to doze.
The message of Dvořák's opera appears to be:
1. If you are a magical immortal creature, especially a water-based one, avoid those treacherous humans, with all their incomprehensible socially-motivated passions. No good will come of miscegenation with one of them. You'll find yourself in cut-for-music-video version of Les Liaisons dangereuses, with no opportunity to learn their evil human games.
2. However, if you do fall in love with a human, dooming both of you forever, it is possible that beauty will come of it--ravishing, heart-rending beauty--but only if your love is pure and strong.
This is crazy, wonderful stuff--the sort of story (I'm beginning to understand) that opera can tell better than any other art form. Well, almost any other art form.
If we arrange human artistic activities on continuum from artificial and high-budget to spontaneous and low-budget, this production of Rusalka--any Metropolitan opera production--would obviously occupy the High Artifice/Big Budget end of the spectrum. (One of the great pleasures of the simulcasts is watching the large and apparently well-paid stage crew, staffed at a level of we'd-rather-have-one-too-many-than-one-too-few, build and rebuild the large complex sets between acts.)
But the odd thing is, we might encounter the exact same story, every bit as powerfully told, at the No Artifice/No Budget end of the spectrum-- in a peasant kitchen, say, in pre-industrial Bohemia, where a half-crazy traveler or widow is earning a meal and drink by holding the children spell-bound with just this kind of yarn. (I'm just guessing at the social dimension of the Czech oral tradition, and I don't know the exact tale the librettist used as a source, but the scene had to be something like that kitchen).
The interesting thing is that in both the big-budget and low-budget version (or the elite and outsider versions), the story is unremittingly dark. There is absolutely no chance--on earth, heaven, or hell--that prince and water-nymph will find happiness, We all know it from the start, and want nothing more than that this couple's doom be beautiful and spell-binding. In the mass--produced versions of the story--The Little Mermaid, for example--it is an iron rule that the tale lead to a happy ending. Curses are but challenges and doom but an obstacle in the quest for true love. It seems that folk tales grow happy endings when they are packaged and sold as inspirational entertainment for the upwardly mobile. But for the peasants in the kitchen, the fashionable opera crowd at Lincoln Center (yes, we were watching you!) and the very odd group of people who gathered today at the South Shore Cinema in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, doom is what we want, as long as it's beautiful.