Accessible Arias: Song to the Moon from Rusalka
In the continuation of our aria-focused series, we take a look at the most famous piece from Dvořák's opera.
Rusalka is an opera about singing. Or rather, what happens when you cannot sing. Echoing the story of The Little Mermaid, Rusalka gives up her voice to be united with a Prince. But he is distinctly put out when his bride-to-be cannot say a word. Instead he accepts the hand of a Foreign Princess and Rusalka, obeying the witch Ježibaba’s curse, is doomed to live in the depths of the lake forever.
The aria ‘Song to the Moon’ comes right at the beginning of the story as Rusalka, still a nymph, sings with full-throated ease to the moon. There are nocturnal serenades throughout the repertoire and Dvořák starts his aria with the proverbial sweeping harp arpeggio, sounding just like a wooing guitarist tuning up. But rather than a trite tune under someone’s balcony, Rusalka’s aria is a luscious vocal display.
The opening chords, passing to muted strings, hover in the air, seeking resolution. Two intertwining clarinets describe a still night and, when Rusalka begins her song, the music finally settles into a balmy major key. The rocking accompaniment has folk-like sincerity and Rusalka’s equal four-bar phrases give her song an uncomplicated sheen.
The harmonic language, however, becomes more knotty just before Rusalka launches into the refrain – rather than being a simple hymn to the moon, Rusalka needs help. Moving slowly down in step, she asks where her beloved is. Her plea is underpinned by a subtle sequence of chords via E flat major to a crueller E flat minor. It’s a tiny harmonic indication of the tragedy in store.
There’s another brief frisson before Rusalka begins a second verse. Dvořák plays another small but significant trick here. While he gave Rusalka four bars of introduction at the beginning of the aria, here there are only two; Rusalka’s need is clearly greater. And rather than floating her second refrain, Rusalka pleads directly and more urgently through a yearning octave leap.
This aria offers a beautiful showcase for the heroine, but it likewise tells us of the tragedy at the heart of the opera. The Prince may swim in the lake, but he’s never heard Rusalka sing and, if she becomes a human, he never will. For Dvořák that created a considerable structural problem; operatic love stories demand duets. And it’s only in the final act, when the lovers are reunited in death, that he is able to create such a moment.
But there are plenty of other glories in the score. The Prince is a hero in the Wagnerian mould and Dvořák leaves us in little musical doubt as to why Rusalka is attracted to him. Their wedding banquet in the second act is littered with vivid choruses and dances, though Rusalka sits silently apart from the festivities. She has given up everything to be there and Dvořák writes equally theatrical music for world of the forest. Rusalka’s father Vodník is a suitably melancholic soul, while the witch Ježibaba is the quintessence of evil magic. The cheeky water sprites are very much like the Rhine maidens in Wagner’s Ring.
Although these characters provide great colour, the tragedy is ultimately Rusalka’s. And what is so fascinating about the opera is Dvořák’s ability to create both a charming fairytale and also to explore music as an overriding metaphor. Clearly without song our world would be considerably poorer and Rusalka’s aria offers a radiant warning.
|Mesiku na nebi hlubokem
Svetlo tvé daleko vidi,
Po svete bloudis sirokém,
Divas se v pribytky lidi.
Mesicku, postuj chvili
|O moon high up in the deep, deep sky,
Your light sees far away regions,
You travel round the wide,
Wide world peering into human dwellings
O, moon, stand still for a moment,
Translation by Jules Brunelle, originally published on Aria Database.
Gavin blogs on Entartete Musik – a cultural journal taking in opera, ballet, music, film and literature