Rusalka, in all its American grandeur, deserved better

After summing up the global operatic tradition, Rusalka, Sir James Levine’s latest biennial symphony, swung from the ground with the force of a knockout blow, steadily tightening its corset until we were reeling back from a knockout punch. (Rusalka is “Erlkönig,” a Swedish word for bride — purloined from the same Norse epic as “Snow White.” — Ovid’s Perséphone.) All the while, Levine remained a steady handspring on the pointillist Steinway piano; it was in his pursuit of the Russian testaments — timeless and full of Romantic contradiction — that this glowing performance of this Rusalka epic forged its own emblematic image.

Rusalka was premiered in St. Petersburg (over the objections of the Tsar), in 1822. The libretto comes from one Alexander Pushkin (a writer, composer and poet who, for an unhappy period, suffered from prodigious stage fright), and is now set to a Russian-English libretto by William Bolcom, Leonard Bernstein’s librettist for West Side Story. (Bolcom’s music is by Alfred Schnittke, whose work is an often odd coupling with Bernstein.) All of its power can be gleaned from Levine’s performance, in which he literally carried the work to a new level.

Bearing down upon us every single crescendo and minuet, Karelia’s yearning heroine had been in my early 20s when I saw this opus in its original public premiere at the opera house in Grès. As an impatient, adrenaline-addled 25-year-old approaching the bow of manhood, watching the matinee performance had made me long for some inner peace. I’ve been fascinated ever since by this poisonous suitor, a man who toils beneath Misha’s portrait of godhood. Once I realized how much theatrical power Rusalka could muster, especially against a conductor as masterful as Levine, and how authentically it was pulsing within my heart and soul, it became a challenge to dislodge the work, to remove it from its theatrical cliches and derivativeities. And that’s exactly what he did.

Rusalka offered me, at 54, a chance to take another deep dive in the beautiful epics of song; I dare say that I—and the men my age and younger —will never have another purer opera singer than this one. (Levine, up until this point in his career, rarely gave a performance that can be considered “glowing” — though, on another evening, he could have filled the Metropolitan Opera House— as beautifully as this magisterial performance of “Der Wand de Rhein” by Wagner’s Beethoven depicts the dark comic vista behind the Promethean ideal of manly might.)

I’m still shaken by his sudden death a few years ago. There’s nothing bad to say about death. It does good things. But there is, though, that death that is summoned by this art form—like gunshots from the air, or rocket missiles from explosions in the real world—something that can kill us cold. When a maestro has nearly insurmountable skills, the current and the past converge in a taut duality, like moons and comets or gamma rays from the cosmos that are known as “cloud-induced hyperrealism.”

Rusalka inhabits this grim corner in a way none of the biblical “saints” ever dared to do. We feel, in our souls, everything that Rusalka feels. I relished it — but I relished the experience also for the purity and boundless grief it summoned up.

And did I say that Rusalka was dark? Many interpretations of “Rusalka” read it as an apotheosis of erotic love. Is the ferocity of Rusalka’s quest—the giddiness with which she risks her life for her lover—actually the exact opposite of Wagner’s magnificent ode to “the High Funfair” in his Rienzi? You bet it is.

Rusalka requires some sensitivity. It is slightly risque — especially considering that it’s a showstopper in which the bridesmaids are naked and their husbands are crude. But it’s the most one-sided battle dance I’ve ever seen, and it’s all thanks to John Tom

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