Rusalka is Dvořák’s best known opera, yet it has taken 122 years for it to be performed at La Scala. June 6 saw the Milan house finally present the work in a new production helmed by the Sicilian stage director Emma Dante. The performance also marked Dante’s long-awaited return to La Scala’s stage.

Inspired by Bohemian folklore, Dvořák’s 1901 opera, like many fairy tales, laces fantastical elements with darker undertones. Here, Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto contains all the key elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” first published seventy years prior, though Kvapil’s text also draws inspiration from Friedrich de la Motte Foqué’s fairy-tale novella, Undine

A scene from Rusalka at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia e Amisano.

Rusalka, a water nymph, tells her father, the water goblin Vodník, that she has fallen in love with a human prince who hunts on the lake. The witch Ježibaba agrees to transform Rusalka into a human as she attempts to conquer the prince’s heart. Ježibaba warns, however, that following the transmutation Rusalka will lose the ability to speak—and her lover will be doomed to death.

Fairy tales permeated the Bohemian imagination. At the Veltrusy mansion near Nelahozeves, the village where Dvořák was born and raised, guests at masquerade balls famously dressed as fairies and nymphs. Fairy tales were thus inevitably a recurrent theme in Dvořák’s oeuvre. By the time the composer began writing Rusalka late in his career, he was focusing almost exclusively on fairy-tale or mythical themes, as in The Devil and Kate (1899) and Armida (1904). 

Dvořák wrote Rusalka—his most successful work for the stage—in just six months, casting the orchestra as an almost equal partner to the voices and infusing the score with evocative representations of the natural world. Time and again, Dvořák had attempted to convey the Czech national spirit by working the rhythms and sounds of his homeland, such as Moravian dances and Slovak folk tunes, into works like his Slavonic Rhapsodies, Czech Suite, and Gypsy Melodies. In tune with Dvořák’s love for his homeland and his love for fairytales, the music in Rusalka is often defined by the contrasting of the human and supernatural realms.

Rusalka is a good match for Dante. The director is well-known in Europe for her vividly imaginative productions, her expressive use of actors’ and dancers’ bodies, and, like Dvořák, her predilection for fairy tales (she recently directed numerous theatrical settings of passages from Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales). All of these traits were on full display in this adaptation of Rusalka.

A scene from Rusalka at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia e Amisano.

Much of the action takes place in a derelict Gothic church with a brilliant rose window. A small water-filled pool at the center of the stage casts twinkling reflections on the church’s ivy-clad walls. With this scenery as the centerpiece, Dante delivers splashes of whimsical fantasy. Her nymphs—sporting goggles and pink swimsuits—dive into the pool and wiggle their legs, and her dancers don antlers and prance onto the stage with craned necks, all while the orchestra reliably delivers a shimmering rendition of the score.

Vanessa Sannino’s costumes are partly inspired by the surreal works of the British artist Ray Caesar, Dante said in a recent interview. Octopus-like tentacles, rather than a mermaid’s fish-tail, dangle from the bottom of Rusalka’s dress, and similar appendages sprout from Vodník’s hands and crown his head. Rusalka is first pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair intended to represent her initial impotence. During her transformation into a human, Ježibaba’s spirited male minions (wearing pink onesies and hats) descend upon her and rip off her tentacles like ravenous beasts.  

A scene from Rusalka at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia e Amisano.

Tomáš Hanus, widely regarded as one of today’s foremost interpreters of Rusalka, has previously conducted the opera at the Vienna State Opera, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Munich. Making his La Scala debut, he offered a colorful interpretation of the score, drawing performances vested with all the lyrical breadth and harmonic richness of a Brahms symphony. There were robust, burnished contributions from the brass, quicksilver flashes from the strings, and punchy executions of Bohemian folk tunes. The score’s post-Impressionist and late Romantic passages were lush and sumptuous in Hanus’s hands.

The soprano Olga Bezsmertna embodied Rusalka’s naivety and sadness in full-bodied, limpid singing leavened with harmonics, her suave yet delicate reading of the “Song to the Moon” capturing the character’s fragility and her yearning for the impossible. When Bezsmertna appeared at the curtain call wrapped in a Ukrainian flag, La Scala’s often unforgiving audience showered her with applause.

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