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the little mermaid

7 march 2020

"The Little Mermaid" has had a multifarious run through popular culture since Hans Christian Andersen spun the tale in 1837. Composers in particular like to set the story to music: from Antonin Dvořák to Alan Menken. Though is Dvořák's Rusalka really based on "The Little Mermaid"? There seems some Internet controversy over whether librettist Jaroslav Kvapil drew from Andersen and other exotic literary fairy tales to write Rusalka, or whether he was inspired solely by Czech legends of water nymphs. I guess it depends on how much you have invested in Czech traditions, or indeed in the notion that folkloric traditions must be the heritage of specific communities, rather than being internationalist and syncretic by nature.

Of course, Rusalka, unlike the unnamed mermaid in Andersen's story, does not live at the bottom of the sea. Shakespeare may have imagined a seacoast of Bohemia, but Kvapil and Dvořák knew better, and for them, Rusalka is a spirit of the inland waters. But in other respects she tracks the Little Mermaid pretty well. She is the daughter of a powerful water spirit. She loves a prince, and a witch helps her get close to that prince (at the temporary cost of her voice, an unusual move for opera); but the prince finds it more politic to court another.

At which point the stories diverge a little. Andersen's Mermaid contemplates murder but can't bring herself to slay her Prince. Rusalka doesn't have such compunctions. Or rather, Rusalka would save the Prince if she could. She won't actually knife him, any more than Andersen's Mermaid would. But he is drawn to her, and Rusalka's kiss is fated to kill him. Andersen's story ends with the redeemed Mermaid mounting aloft and becoming a spirit of the air. Rusalka ends with a very dead Prince and a title nymph in the business of wreaking havoc on humans unlucky enough to stray into her realm.

Andersen's Little Mermaid is nicer, and ultimately not quite as unhappy, though her fate is rather austere. Andersen's story opens more engagingly than it closes. At the bottom of the sea, the Little Mermaid thrills to tales of life topside. Everything is more romantic up there, and she can't get enough stories of the enchanting ways of air-breathers. Which means that she's just like human listeners to Andersen's story, who can't get enough of the topsy-turvy world beneath the waves. Romanticism and fantasy are tinged, as often in Andersen's tales, with a distinct element of self-conscious artifice.

Opera is nothing if not self-consciously artificial. In the recent production of Rusalka at the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp (which I saw in streaming form, not in Belgium), director Alan Lucien Øyen redoubled Dvořák's opera by adding dance. Each of the principal characters in Rusalka was doubled by a dancer. Sometimes this was distracting. Dvořák's high-Romantic arias and duets can be rather emotive in themselves. Impassioned dancing alongside the singers risked overload at times, and the acting areas got a little crowded. At other times, the device worked well. Rusalka, after all, requires the title character to lose her voice for a good while in the second act. When represented by an already-silent dancer, Rusalka's emotions gain power.

The opera builds to a wrenching conclusion that leaves the audience very far from the Disney ending. For once it's not the soprano who perishes at the end. The tenor instead, here the impressive Kyungho Kim, goes willingly to his death: a world where Rusalka cannot kiss him isn't worth living in anyway.

Andersen, Hans Christian. The Little Mermaid. [Den lille havfrue, 1837.]