Godiam la pace
Laura Liebreich-Johnsen, Anne-Marie Reyes, Stephen Anastasia, Christopher Hunter, and the Chorus
Placido è il mar, andiamo
Shana Blake Hill and the Chorus
O voto tremendo
Mathew Edwardsen and the Chorus
A l’heure accoutumée
Gregorio González, Ms. Hill, and the Chorus
Viens, Mallika—Sous le dome épais
Ms. Hill and Judy Tran Gallego
Sur la grève en feu
Au fond du temple saint
Mr. Edwardsen and Mr. González
Sois la bienvenue
O Dieu Brahma
Ms. Hill, Mr. Edwardsen, and the Chorus
Act II Finale
Ms. Hill, Mr. Edwardsen, Mr González, Mauricio A. Palma II, and the Chorus
Featuring Laraine Ann Madden, pianist, with the Chorus
Ja vas lyublyu (Prince Yeletsky’s Aria)
Babatunde Akinboboye and the Chorus
Song to the Moon
Down in Dear Marsovia
Ms. Hill and the Chorus
You’ll Find Me at Maxim’s
Oh, Come Away, Away! and I Love You So
Ms. Hill, Mr. Edwardsen, Mr. González, and the Chorus
The attraction of distant lands (and eras) has been a staple of the operatic form since its inception. Given the birth of what we now call “opera” during the Renaissance as epitomized by such early masterpieces as Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, it is unsurprising that these works drew inspiration from classical subjects based in Greek and Roman antiquity. The same can be said of Renaissance drama and poetry, not to mention art and architecture. However, the fascination with remote places and times seems to have retained its power for operatic purposes long after the other arts had moved on, at least temporarily, to other ways of representing the world. This is due in part to the frequent demands upon the operatic form for visual, dramatic, and musical size and spectacle, for which exotic locales provided a satisfying solution. In addition, the rise of opera occurred in tandem with ever-expanding exploration and colonization by the European powers that have been the main producers and consumers of Western opera. As European dominance grew, so did the development of opera that moved from classical subjects such as Mozart’s Idomeneo to stories and settings that reflected European values such as bringing civilization to societies viewed as primitive or inferior. Even in works in which the foreign subjects are portrayed equitably, the clash of cultures provided a source of vital dramatic conflict. In addition, increasing Western exposure to these distant cultures offered a welcome influx of inspiration based on their very different cultural beliefs and forms. It is likely that in opera, as in the other arts that drew on far-flung societies, the results more accurately reflected the Western culture that produced the art than the mileus it purported to show. However, there is no doubt that the artists attempted to adopt some of the musical and artistic styles of the locales they were portraying. This is especially noticeable in two of the key sections of this concert, Delibes’ Lakmé and Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, which dovetail with the craze in European painting and literature for “Orientalism” that was such a strong force in late 19th century Europe. Likewise, it may be that to Russians of Borodin’s time, the 12th century battles of the mythologized Prince Igor against the Khan of the nomadic Polovtsian tribes must have seemed as distant as the idea of landing on the moon.
Only 25 at the time of Idomeneo’s premiere during the Munich carnival season of 1781, Mozart was approaching the height of his operatic powers, just a year before The Abduction from the Seraglio and five years before Le Nozze di Figaro. Mozart was to tell his wife Constanze that the happiest time of his life was while composing Idomeneo. (Einstein described the opera as “one of those works that even a genius of the highest rank, like Mozart, could write only once in his life.”) Set to a libretto by the Abbé Giovanni Veresco and the first of his operas in which Mozart was able to influence the structure of the libretto, Idomeneo may be said to be the first mature Mozart opera, reflecting his superb talent for theater and character development. Aside from the individual complexities of the four main characters, Mozart assigned the chorus an important role in the story, a rarity for opera seria.
Idomeneo, the King of Crete, returns with his fleet from the Trojan War, where he was allied with the victorious Greeks. In return for their rescue from a violent storm, he vows to sacrifice to Neptune the first person he meets on his return home. It is unfortunately his son Idamante whom the King first sees, and in a vain attempt to save his son, Idomeneo tries to send him away to Greece to escort home Agamemnon’s daughter Elettra, who is passionately in love with Idamante (who in turn loves Ilia, a captured daughter of the Trojan King Priam). However, Neptune is furious at Idomeneo’s attempt to escape his vow and sends a sea beast and tempests to ravage the country. Idamante kills the monster and, learning of his father’s vow, offers his life to the gods in order to spare his country. Neptune himself intercedes, and spares Idamante’s life on the condition that Idomeneo abdicate his throne in favor of his son. Everyone rejoices – except the spurned Elettra.
Rejoicing that his father’s ships have been saved from the storm which engulfed them on their journey home, Idamante frees the Trojan prisoners as a gesture of celebration and of his love for Ilia. The Cretans and newly freed Trojans salute peace and the triumph of love (“Godiam la pace”) and declare that every heart will rejoice. Two Cretan maidens give thanks that war is extinguished and the world will have peace, and two Trojan soldiers praise the gods for their liberation.
The retinue that will accompany Elettra and Idamante to Greece is cheered that the sea that will carry them is calm (“Placido è il mar, andiamo.”) They are eager to leave quickly, assured that they will have good fortune. Happy in her belief that Idamante will come to love her during their journey, Elettra asks that only the sweet zephyrs blow, calming the anger of the cold north wind and spreading love everywhere.
The storms and sea monster which Neptune has sent to prevent Idomeneo from evading his vow have terrified the Cretans, who wonder who is responsible for Neptune’s wrath. Idomeneo has offered himself to Neptune as a substitute for the sacrifice of his son, to no avail. At last Idomeneo confesses to his subjects the nature of his vow, which requires that he sacrifice his own son. They are horrified at his dreadful vow (“O voto tremendo!”) and envision the horrible sight. Death now reigns and throws open the doors of its cruel abyss. The High Priest begs the gods for mercy for the innocent son. The oath is brutal and the gods should stay the hand of the faithful father from carrying it out. The sorrowful people bemoan the terrible vow as they leave for Neptune’s temple to witness the fateful act.
Idamante has willingly accepted that he must be sacrificed, but as Idomeneo raises the fatal ax, the voice of Neptune is heard. He will allow Idamante to live if Idomeneo surrenders his throne to him and allows him to marry the Trojan princess Ilia. As the joyous Cretans prepare for the wedding, they ask that Love and Hymen (the god of marriage) descend to bless the royal couple (“Scenda amor”), and that Juno, the matchmaker goddess, instill peace in the royal couple’s hearts.
Léo Delibes entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1847 at the age of eleven and studied composition under Adolphe Adam. He began his career as an accompanist at the Théâtre-Lyrique and as a chorus master at the Paris Opéra. Having written his first operetta at the age of nineteen, he went on to become professor of composition at the Conservatoire and a member of the French Institute. His early experience gave him a sophisticated insight into the demands of the stage and he became a prolific and popular composer of operetta (frequently at Offenbach’s Bouffes-Parisiens) and ballet, notably Coppélia and Sylvia. Delibes was perhaps the first notable composer to write music for the ballet, influencing such composers as Tchaikovsky and Debussy.
Based on a French short story and a novel and set to a libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Phillippe Gille, Lakmé is the last of Delibes’ operas to be completed by the composer and remains his most popular. It was first performed in 1883 at the Opéra Comique in Paris and achieved great success. The title role was written for the American singer Marie Van Zandt, for whom Massenet wrote the title role of Manon.
Set in India under British colonial rule in the 19th century, the opera focuses on the story of Lakmé, the daughter of the Brahmin high priest Nilakantha and a priestess herself, who falls in love with an English officer and sacrifices her life in order to save his. Remarkable for its prescience a full forty years before Gandhi’s movement to free India of colonial rule, Lakmé is unlike many of the other “exotic” operas of the period in that the clash between two very different cultures is almost as much a part of the opera as its love story, and the non-Western culture of the Hindus is neither incidental nor presented as inferior, but simply at odds with the beliefs and practices of the British rulers.
In the opening scene, dawn is breaking in a garden sacred to the Hindu men and women who come to worship at a hidden temple. They arrive at the usual hour (“A l’heure accoutumée”) when the fragrant plain, enflamed by the dawn, welcomes the newborn day. They pray that their prayers will unite to calm Brahma’s menacing wrath. The firebrand priest Nilakantha praises their devotion and promises that they will exhaust their hated conquerors, who have chased their gods from the temples. He promises his followers that Brahma will revenge their shame and free them. In his house today he saw the power of Brahma shining, and his soul soared to the god as he heard his daughter praying. His daughter Lakmé approaches and the people join her in prayer. She invokes the gods, fair Dourga, pale Shiva, and mighty Ganesh (“Blanche, Dourga”), as the faithful join her in praising them and ask them to calm Brahma and protect them.
Nilakantha leaves Lakmé and her slave Mallika to guard the sacred garden. Lakmé bids Mallika to join her (“Viens, Mallika”) as she prepares to bathe in a nearby stream. The flowering vines are throwing their shadow over the sacred brook, awakened by the rowdy song of the birds. Mallika is happy to see her mistress smiling because at these times, she may read Lakmé’s normally hidden heart. They sing of the dome of white jasmine (“Sous le dome épais”) overhead and the roses which cover the river banks in the fresh morning. Ah! They want to glide along the flying current on the trembling waves, reaching out to the bank where the birds sing with them, calling them all together. But Lakmé is seized by sudden dread – whenever her father travels alone to the cursed town, she trembles in fear. Mallika says that Ganesha protects him, and suggests they go to the pond where swans with white wings frolic so they may gather some blue lotus. As they depart, they sing again of the lovely dome of white jasmine.
Georges Bizet was born into a world of music in 1838 in Paris and remained immersed in it throughout his brief life. Bizet’s father was a sometime singing teacher and composer, and his mother was herself a talented pianist and the sister of a famous singing teacher. Both parents noted Bizet’s talent as early as age four, and he was groomed to become a composer. In spite of being too young to be officially admitted (at the age of nine) to the Paris Conservatory of Music, his talent so impressed the faculty that he was granted admittance in short order just before he turned ten. Among the faculty under whom he studied, he became particularly close with Charles Gounod and Jacques Halévy (best known today for his opera La Juive), whose daughter he would later marry and whose nephew was one of the librettists for Carmen. Following three years of study and composition in Italy after winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at age 19, Bizet returned to Paris where he remained for the rest of his life.
Bizet was also noted for his superb skills as a pianist, once astonishing Franz Liszt by playing at sight a piece Liszt thought no other pianist but himself capable of performing. Bizet feared that his instrumental skills would interfere with his composing, however, and he usually refused to play in public except for charity concerts. The young composer was as drawn to literature and theater as he was absorbed in music (his parents hid his books so that precious practice time would not be wasted in reading), and he always had a keen eye, as well as an ear, for theatrical possibilities. He was said to have told his friend Saint-Saëns that he required the theater rather than the concert hall to fulfill his talents. Since, at the time, composing for the opera was far better paid than other forms of music, he had an extra incentive to follow his natural inclination. However, the world of Parisian opera was rife with mismanagement, greed, and a fear of the unconventional, all of which caused Bizet no end of professional problems, up to and including his final masterpiece, Carmen.
Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), produced at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863, when Bizet was merely 24, was his first major opera and proved no exception as far as the difficulties of dealing with opera impresarios and librettists with which he always had to contend. Originally set in Mexico, the setting was changed to Ceylon, and the libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon fluctuated wildly well into the rehearsal period. Even one of the librettists later admitted that had they recognized Bizet’s genius, they would have been embarrassed to have submitted their work to him. The opera suffered other production problems as well, and its reception by the audience on the first night was only moderate. As would happen repeatedly, the mainstream music critics sniffed at Bizet’s musical experimentation, and alternately assailed Bizet for attempting to imitate Wagner and for not following in Wagner’s footsteps. One notable exception, however, was the composer and critic Hector Berlioz (who endured the same critical resistance to his innovations as did Bizet). In his last article as a paid critic, Berlioz praised the opera warmly, calling it replete with rich, colorful scenes and beautiful, expressive music.
The opera is set in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and revolves around a love triangle among Leila, a virgin priestess of Brahma, Zurga, the head of the pearl fishers, and his old friend Nadir. The first scene opens on the shore as a group of fishermen prepares for a pearl diving voyage. The entire village gathers on the burning sand (“Sur la grève en feu”) by the sleeping blue sea, pitching their tents. They tell the young women with dark eyes and flowing tresses to drive away evil spirits with their songs, and they will all dance until night falls. The departing pearl fishers survey their domain, to which fate returns them every year to confront death. Under the deep waves the bold divers will find the honey-colored pearl hidden from other eyes.
In return for the pearl fishers’ promise that they will obey him in all things, Zurga has acceded to their plea to serve as leader of their expedition. His old friend Nadir has returned to the village after a long absence. Zurga asks if Nadir has kept their mutual promise of long ago, and Nadir says he has. Zurga says they should forget the past and celebrate this sweet hour as brothers and friends for life, but Nadir says that peace will never come to them. Even when they have reached the age when their past dreams have vanished, they will remember their journey to the temple at Candi. The two men recall their love for an unknown priestess years ago. In the cool evening air, she had entered a holy temple (“Au fond du temple saint”). As the worshippers in the temple knelt before her, imagining they were seeing an actual goddess, her veil had parted briefly. Zurga and Nadir can remember her face as if it were yesterday. The crowd had murmured that the goddess herself had come among them, and Nadir and Zurga agreed. Yes, it is she! It is the goddess, even more charming and beautiful, who has come down among them. Each had recognized that love had taken their hearts by force, and would turn them into enemies. Vowing that nothing would part them and neither would pursue her in order to preserve their friendship, they had sworn to remain friends until death, united by their love of the goddess.
A veiled priestess of Brahma arrives at the village, appointed by the villagers to pray at the temple for the safe voyage of the pearl fishers. The villagers welcome the unknown friend (“Sois la bienvenue, Amie inconnue”), offering her gifts and urging her to sing so that storms and tempests will be appeased by her sweet tones. Let the foul spirits of the waves fly away at the sound of her voice. Let her chase away with her songs the spirits of the water and the nearby woods. They beseech her to watch over and protect them.
Zurga demands that the priestess swear to always retain her veil, remain pure, and pray day and night by the cliffs to ward away the evil spirits. If she observes her vow, she will be well rewarded, but if she breaks it, she will lose her life. As she makes her vow, she suddenly recognizes Nadir in the crowd and is shocked to see him. Recovering her composure and repeating her vow to follow Zurga’s commands, she ascends to the cliff to begin her prayers. Nadir imagines he recognizes her voice from the past but can’t believe it is true. He lies down underneath the cliff to try to sleep.
Reaching the promontory where she will stand guard, the priestess entreats the god Brahma (“O Dieu Brahma”), the master of the world, and the blonde goddess Siva, as well as the spirits of the air, the waves, the rocks, and the forest, for protection. The villagers echo her, and ask her to continue her song so that her beautiful voice will chase away all danger. She sings of the cloudless sky where the stars sparkle in the pure, transparent night. Leaning toward the shore where Nadir lies, she murmurs that her eyes follow him across the night, her voice implores him, and her heart adores him. Her song flutters in the air like a bird. The pearl fishers listening in the distance again beg her to keep singing. The priestess briefly lifts her veil to Nadir and he recognizes her as Leila, the priestess whom he and Zurga had loved long ago. He vows to give his life to defend her. Leila is thrilled that he is below and can hear her. For him, for her adored one, she will keep singing.
In the Finale to Act II, Nadir tries to persuade Leila to abandon her vow of chastity and run away with him. Discovering them, the high priest Nourabad curses them and summons the villagers to denounce the illicit lovers. The villagers wonder why they are summoned and what deathly omen awaits them. As a sudden storm breaks over them, the villagers cry out in fear of the appalling night. The frothing ocean is raising its furious waves as they wonder why the priestess stands pale and trembling, shivering and speechless. Nourabad reveals that Leila and Nadir have desecrated the sacred temple. The people are shocked to realize that Nadir is a traitor and agree that for the guilty pair there will be neither pity nor mercy. Only death! As the terrified Leila cries out in fear, Nadir says he would rather die than ask for mercy. The crowd calls on the punishing spirits of darkness to open the deadly abyss for them as Nadir tries to shield Leila.
Zurga appears and commands the crowd to stop (“Arretez!”), saying that he will judge Leila and Nadir’s guilt. Reminding the pearl fishers that they have sworn allegiance to him as their leader, he decides to free his friend Nadir and the unknown priestess. The crowd grudgingly agrees to release the traitors, but Nourabad tears Leila’s veil from her face, revealing her identity. Zurga is infuriated at his friend’s betrayal of their vows to give up Leila and curses them both. As the crowd again demands death for them, Zurga joins them. Suddenly the storm redoubles in fury, and Nourabad shouts that the thunder and lightning will strike them all. He calls out to Brahma as the terrified villagers fall to their knees and call on the god to raise his hand to protect them. They swear to punish the sacrilegious lovers as they are led away by the priests and fishermen.
Alexander Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Tartar Prince. After earning a doctorate in medicine, his primary interests were his noteworthy career in chemistry and social issues such as the emancipation of women. Borodin was a member of a group of composers that included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, variously known as the “Russian Five” or the “Mighty Five,” who hoped to break away from European tradition to achieve a style of purely Russian music. However, composing remained a secondary pursuit for Borodin, and he described himself as a “Sunday composer.” Prince Igor is the best known of Borodin’s works, both in opera form and for its overture and the Polovtsian Dances, which are often performed as stand-alone ballet or concert works. Having worked sporadically on Prince Igor since 1869, Borodin left the opera incomplete at his death in 1887 (of heart failure while dancing at a ball). Its composition and orchestration were completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. The opera was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1890. Audience members may recognize several Broadway melodies from the 1953 musical Kismet, for which Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted Borodin’s music as the major part of the score.
Set in four acts with a prologue, the libretto was adapted by Borodin himself from a 12th or 13th century East Slavic epic “The Lay of Igor’s Host,” about a 12th-century Russian prince and his campaigns against the invading Polovtsian tribes — fierce, nomadic warriors from the steppes of northeastern Russia. Act II of Prince Igor is set in the camp of the Polovtsian army, which has captured Igor and his son, who falls in love with the daughter of the Polovtsian leader Khan Konchak. The Khan has been impressed with Prince Igor and even suggests that they should work together as allies instead of enemies, but Igor admits to him that if he were freed, he would only fight again to free his country of the enemy. Hoping to cheer his prisoner and win him over, the Khan orders a lavish entertainment, featuring dancing by his most beautiful slaves and feats of military expertise by his soldiers. Borodin uses the famous Polovtsian Dances to striking musical effect to emphasize the vast differences between Russian culture and that of the nomads, but he is notably even-handed in his portrayal of the supposedly “barbarian” Polovtsians, presenting them as equals in honor in spite of their differences in customs and ambitions.
In the first section, “The Flowing Dance of Young Maidens,” the slave women tell their dear songs to fly on gentle breezes to the land where they once lived freely with no sorrow. There beneath the hot sun, the breezes would cool them, where the lapping waves of the sea dream with the silver clouds above. There it is sunny by the dear sea of their homeland. In the meadow the roses and bushes bloom and many nightingales sing in the green forest. The grapes of the vineyard give sweet wine, and they send their songs of freedom there. The second section is a rousing “Dance of the Savage Men.” The slaves and soldiers next join to sing songs of praise to the Khan, extolling his courage, generosity, and mercy. He is their glorious Khan, with a blaze of glory equal to the sun’s. There is no one equal in glory to the Khan! Konchak and his soldiers point out to Igor the slave girls from a distant sea, especially a pretty one from beyond the Caspian. Igor has only to say a word and Konchak will give Igor whichever favorite he chooses. Young boys perform their own dance for the Khan and Igor as the soldiers proclaim that the Khan is the equal of their glorious forefathers.
Based on a dark and cynical 1834 short story by Alexander Pushkin, Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) was adapted into a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest for another composer, who refused it. Tchaikovsky took over the script and rewrote it to his own satisfaction, transforming Pushkin’s ironic pessimism into romantic tragedy. Its 1890 premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg achieved almost as great a success as that of Eugene Onegin in 1879. In spite of its 1910 American premiere having a starry cast led by no less a conductor than Gustav Mahler, Pique Dame did not achieve the success in the United State that it continues to enjoy in Russia and Europe.
Pique Dame is set in St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century. The reticent young army officer Hermann is secretly in love with Lisa, the granddaughter of a Countess who is known as the Queen of Spades, renowned for her luck at cards and her mysterious past. Hermann is convinced by fellow soldiers that the Countess possesses a special trick for winning at cards. Hoping the secret will enable him to win a fortune and the love of Lisa, Herman hides in the Countess’ room in hopes of persuading her to give him the secret – but he only succeeds in frightening her to death. Haunted by a vision of the Countess, he proceeds to gamble against Lisa’s fiancé Prince Yeletsky and stakes everything on cards shown to him by the Countess’ ghost. The final card turns out to be the queen of spades instead of the ace. Having lost everything, Hermann stabs himself.
Act II opens on a glittering masked ball. Although she is promised to Prince Yeletsky, Lisa has secretly fallen in love with Hermann, to whom her fiancé has introduced her. At the ball, Yeletsky is perplexed by Lisa’s silence and apparent sadness, unaware that she is in love with someone else. Asking her to confide in him, she resists and tries to leave, but he says he must speak to her. He loves her beyond all measure (“Ja vas lyublyu”) and can’t live without her. He is ready to accomplish any heroic deed for her. However, he swears that he doesn’t wish to restrict the freedom of her heart. He will hide his feelings in order to please her, and control his jealousy. He wants to be not simply her husband or a useful servant, but her friend, and always her consoler. Yet he sees clearly now how he has allowed himself to be misled by dreams. She has little trust in him, and he must seem alien and remote to her. He is tormented by this – her sadness is his, and he also weeps her tears. He reiterates that he loves her beyond all measure and would do anything to win her, and asks that she trust him.
Antonín Dvorák was born in 1841 in Prague in Bohemia, at the time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Displaying musical prowess at an early age, first playing the violin when he was six, he soon was sent away to live with an uncle while studying German and music theory. After studying violin, piano, and organ, he earned his early professional experience as a violist in an orchestra that first played at restaurants and balls but was soon employed at a Bohemian theater, where he was exposed to symphonic and operatic repertoire. He began composing in the early 1860’s, although his early works were not publicly performed and he toiled in obscurity until the 1870’s when he began to have his works presented in Prague. After entering his work in several competitions, beginning in 1874 he attracted the attention of some prominent jurors for awards, notably Brahms, who became a lifelong advocate of his work. His reputation grew with the support of Brahms and other important conductors and performers following orchestral successes in Germany, England, the United States, and Russia, although he was later to discover that members of German orchestras objected to having to play the music of a Czech composer. Fame and acceptance grew much more rapidly in more distant countries than in Germany and Austria. Following several years at the Prague Conservatory as professor of composition and instrumentation, in 1892 Dvorák became the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he remained until 1895. Like so many composers of his era who promoted nationalistic themes independent of the various monarchies and protectorates that ruled their countries, he had used the native idioms of Bohemian and Moravian folk music as important components of his work. Dvorák set out to involve himself in the discovery of “American Music” in much the same way, writing articles about its progress and the importance of African-American and Native American music to its development. The African-American composer Harry Burleigh, one of his pupils, introduced him to traditional American spirituals. In 1893, the New York Philharmonic commissioned what became the New World Symphony, probably his most famous work, and his American sojourn also produced his Cello Concerto in B Minor as well as other notable orchestral works. He returned with his family to his homeland in 1895, where he resumed his professorship at Prague University. For the remainder of his life, most of his attention was devoted to composing chamber music and operas, including his most famous opera, Rusalka, which achieved enormous success at its premiere in Prague in 1901. Aside from leaving a number of unfinished works at his death in 1904, Dvorák’s prolific output includes a wide range of repertory including orchestral, choral, spiritual, and operatic works.
The legends of water creatures such as mermaids, sirens, undines, loreleis, and nixies have been part of the lore of faraway places as old as ancient Assyria, and include “sightings” by Columbus in the Caribbean and onward into the 21st century on nearly every continent. Such legends provided abundant inspiration for stories, songs, plays, operas, and visual arts, the most famous being Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. In Slavic mythology, a rusalka is a water nymph, usually living in lakes and rivers. Although early legends portrayed them as benevolent fertility figures, by the 19th century they were often portrayed as dangerous creatures who lured men to their deaths. They were distinctive in being highly social creatures who liked to travel and play in groups. Dvorák composed the opera to a libretto written by the Czech poet and playwright Jaroslav Kvapil in 1899. The composer created the work at a rapid pace between April and November of 1900. Kvapil’s libretto reflected the popularity in central Europe at the time for native legends and mystic fairy tales. It was based on works by the Czech authors Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena N?mcová who drew on native folk tales for their work, but it drew as well from Andersen’s story, Fouqué’s French fairy tale Undine, and the German play The Sunken Bell by Gerhart Hauptmann.
The story tells of the young water nymph Rusalka, who has fallen in love with a handsome prince she has seen swimming in the lake. She yearns to have a human body and human soul so she can win the prince’s love. Her father, the Water Sprite who rules their lake, tries to warn his daughter that such a choice will doom her, but sadly says that since she insists, she should see the witch Jezibaba to fulfill her desire. Jezibaba agrees to grant her wish but warns her that the transformation will leave her mute. Worse, if her love betrays her, she will be an outcast. Rusalka agrees, and the prince, soon fascinated by her silence and attracted by her beauty, takes her away to his castle. However, he soon tires of her reserve and becomes attracted to a foreign princess who has been invited to their wedding. Rusalka returns to the lake and her father threatens the faithless prince. Devastated by the loss of his bride and the sudden rejection of the princess he had dallied with, the prince loses his senses. The witch tells Rusalka she can only return to her natural state if she will kill her untrue lover, but Rusalka cannot bring herself to do so. However, the maddened prince searches for her by the shores of the lake and begs her for just a kiss. She warns that her kiss can only bring him death, but he willingly agrees in order to find forgiveness and peace. He dies in her arms and Rusalka returns to her home in the lake.
In Act II, the prince has taken Rusalka back to his castle and has invited guests to their marriage. However, he is bewildered and somewhat alarmed that she does not speak and trembles in fear when he tries to embrace her. Among the wedding guests is a foreign princess who sets her sights on the prince. When Rusalka attempts to come between them, the prince brusquely tells her to go back to the castle and prepare for the ceremony. She woefully does so as dusk falls and the moon appears, lighting the arrival of the wedding guests. They sing of the white blossoms (“Kvetiny bílé”), all along the road. They were all over the road as a young man rode to his maid and the day smiled brightly on him. They tell the young man not to wait but to hasten, for soon he will attain manhood. When he returns, red roses will be blooming. All of the white blossoms were the first to yield to the rays of the sun, but the blazing red roses will embellish the marriage chamber. However, the Water Sprite has witnessed Rusalka’s humiliation and he sadly notes that she is pale and pitiful, caught in the human’s worldly web. Alas for her – the only white blossoms will be those of the waterlilies who will be her sad companions. No red roses will decorate her bridal bed.
In Act I, having told Rusalka of the witch’s ability to grant her wish, Water Sprite has sorrowfully disappeared beneath the water. Looking at the bright moon as it emerges from the clouds, Rusalka appeals to it (Song to the Moon.) O moon, high in the deep, deep sky, your light sees far away places as you travel around the wide world, gazing into human homes. She asks the moon to tell her where her beloved is. Tell him, silvery moon, that her arms reach out to him, hoping that for a brief moment he might dream of her. She asks the moon to shed her light on him, far away, and tell him that she waits for him. If he is dreaming about her, let him remember her when he awakes. O, moon, don’t disappear behind the cloud!
Rusalka takes the potion which Jezibaba gives her and is transformed into a human, albeit one who cannot speak. The prince enters the clearing by the lake in pursuit of a white doe he has been hunting in the forest. Seeing Rusalka and struck by her beauty, he appeals to her. “Divine one (“Vidino divná”), are you real? Are you here to protect that doe I’ve been chasing? Are you here to beg for her life, perhaps the sister of the white doe? Or are you offering yourself as my trophy?” He asks if a secret seals her lips, or is she mute? If her lips are mute, he swears that his kiss will make them speak. She must explain the mystery that lured him here, over thorns and rocks, so that on this blissful day he can bask in the enchantment of her eyes. But until she does, she must stay with him – the hunt is over and she is his prize! Golden star shining in the night, dreamlike vision, she must come with him!
For our final foray into a distant land, what could be farther away than the imaginary country of Marsovia? Although the operetta is set in Paris, its true soul lies in Marsovia, located somewhere between the newly erected Eiffel Tower and the glittering waltz capital of Vienna. Franz Lehár was born in Hungary but found lasting success as a composer in Austria. He wrote dozens of operettas, a few operas (mostly unfinished), several film scores, and innumerable orchestra works, especially marches and waltzes. Initially not an overwhelming success either with the public or the critics at its 1905 premiere in Vienna, The Merry Widow survived partly thanks to the tenacity of its producers (who had no other productions ready to take its place). After a run of several months, it went on to sell out every night for years and remains Lehár’s most famous and popular work. The Merry Widow was rapidly presented all over Austria and Germany, then the world; at one point there were five separate productions running in Buenos Aires – in five different languages. It ran for years in both London and New York, although the latter required the discreet excision of some of its more risqué lines, and it was still sniffed at for its looseness by the New York Times. It has spawned three glossy film versions (one of them a silent, which bears witness to the appeal of the plot as well as the music), a ballet, and even an ice show, not to mention hats, dresses, and corsets. The Merry Widow was a loose adaptation by Victor Léon and Leon Stein of a French play by Henri Meilhac, co-author of the libretti for Carmen, Manon, and many of Offenbach’s most popular operettas.
Sonia, the widow of the richest man of an impoverished country, Marsovia, has inherited her husband’s fortune. Baron Popov, the Marsovian ambassador to France, is fearful that Sonia will be swept off her feet by a non-Marsovian while she is visiting Paris. He tries to enlist Prince Danilo, one of the attachés in his embassy, to marry Sonia so that Marsovia will not be left bankrupt. As it happens, Danilo and Sonia were once in love, but his uncle forbade his marriage to a poor commoner. Although they clearly still love each other, Danilo refuses to woo Sonia, fearing it will look as if he is only a fortune hunter like all the others who pursue her. Stung by his seeming indifference, Sonia announces that she will marry a Frenchman, although as it turns out, this is a ruse to protect the honor of the ambassador’s wife. Danilo is devastated that he will lose Sonia again, and she vows to herself that she won’t marry him until he says “I love you.”When Sonia announces that she will lose her fortune if she remarries, her other suitors quickly fade away, but Danilo is delighted and asks her to marry him. Upon learning that she meant that she would lose her fortune only because it would pass to the control of her new husband, he good-naturedly surrenders, ensuring the continued solvency of Marsovia as well as securing his true love.
To prove that her heart is still with her country, Sonia has invited her compatriots to a real Marsovian party. Her guests sing and dance to a Marsovian folk song, “Down in Dear Marsovia.” Sonia recalls their native land by singing another Marsovian song – the story of “Vilia,” a forest nymph who falls in love with a mortal.
Ambassador Popov has sent his aides all over Paris to try to find Danilo in order to persuade him to woo and marry Sonia. When the debonair man about town finally arrives at the embassy from the famous restaurant Maxim’s – accompanied by six cabaret dancers – he explains that after a hard day’s work on behalf of his fatherland, he likes nothing better than a night on the town, advising “You’ll Find Me at Maxim’s.”
In the midst of the romantic obstacles that Danilo faces with Sonia, he’s not the only man having trouble with the ladies. It seems Popov and the other Marsovians, not to mention some amorous Parisians entangled with certain wives who aren’t their own, are fed up with the whims and foibles of their women. If only they could live without them! “Oh, the Ladies!”
The Merry Widow is famous for its dances. During “Ladies’ Choice” at the Marsovian ball, the dancers pair off as they sing, “Oh, come away,” and at the end of the play Danilo finally capitulates to Sonia and is able to say the words she has been waiting for in the famous Merry Widow Waltz – “I Love You So.”