I was lucky to catch The Met Live HD screening of  Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka at the NCPA in South Bombay this evening.

These are things I miss, about living in Goa. And even more so about living in India. In England, it would have been possible to catch live opera in London, or even touring opera companies out in the sticks. But in India, one often has to make do with the cinema experience (and thank God we at least have that! I have blogged about this in the past, before this trend began), and in Goa not at all.

Anyway, back to Rusalka. I was aware of the opera, and familiar with the famous Song to the Moon (“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém”) from act 1, having heard it in several concert recitals. I was even vaguely acquainted with the pot. But I didn’t know much else about it, and had never heard it in full.

I knew it would be in Czech, and I expected to find my interest levels flagging because of it, and somehow thought it would be a task to listen to. This would be my first Dvořák opera, and I ffet less excited than I would have been if Rossini or Verdi had been on offer instead.

I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Dvořák’s music is so captivating, so brilliantly written, so seductive, that you are hooked from the very beginning. This is truly a work of genius, and I do not say this lightly.

The clever use of motivic ideas (almost Wagnerian in places), and the superlative use of orchestral colour are what struck me at once. One heard similarities with so much of orchestral  Dvořák, and I was glad to find, in an interview between acts, that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin agreed. He apparently told the orchestra “It’s like conducting three Dvořák symphonies!”

The 4-note ascending chromatic motif that is so familiar to use from Song to the Moon, for example. I didn’t realise how intrinsic it was to the rest of the opera, until now. There were other snippets like that, that kept resurfacing in so many different avatars, in the most interesting timbres and orchestral combinations, it was really a sensual experience. This is Dvořák at the height of his powers, at full maturity.

You can tell that Dvořák not only knows opera and orchestral writing well, but it comes as no surprise that he had first-hand experience “in the trenches”, in the pit orchestra himself. He played viola, and has written some truly luscious parts for viola, added its dark colours in all the right places like a master painter.

 Renée Fleming was truly outstanding as the title character. I feel so fortunate that I was also able to hear her live at the Met in October 2012, as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. The rest of the cast were names I was being introduced to for the first time, but they were wonderful too: Piottr Beczala as the Prince, Dolora Zajick as the witch Ježibaba and John Relyea as the Water Gnome, Rusalka’s father.

There seemed to be so many parables, allegories, and Freudian lessons encrypted in the plotline, or maybe I was reading too much. For instance, the notion that once you get something you really yearn for, you pay a heavy price (so be careful what you wish for!). Also the sisters disowning Rusalka after she had been kissed by a man: was this because she had breached the water-nymph code and reached out to a human being, or were there incestuous, even homo-erotic undertones here?

This is an opera I’ll certainly return to, in whatever form, whether live, on-screen or in recording. This was a magical evening.

I do feel that the NCPA could crank up the volume just a tad, though. It was also a little disconcerting to find a few people in the audience dropping off to sleep in the third act, snoring and snorting and grunting loudly when the music got too high either in decibel level or pitch, penetrating the fog of their slumber. Their loss, really. 

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