THE BATTLE FOR RUSALKA WHO IS THE THE REAL RUSALKA -- ANNA NETREBKO OR RENEE FLEMING? ===
People seem to think that the battle for Rusalka is about two great Divas of our day, Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming. In so far as one note and its interpretation in Dvorak’s aria ‘La Chanson de la Lune’ lies between the Divas, nothing could be further from the truth. Some people have called it a storm in a teacup, others have wittily called it the ‘long!and!the!short’ of it; but the di"erence in interpretation has a signiﬁcance beyond its operatic environment. Renee Fleming’ s primal scream for love is a necessary protest that has the same signiﬁcance as witchcraft in ancient Europe. Whether the isssue is one of nymph!hood, womanhood or motherhood, one can be assured that its anthropological underpinnings have not been understood by many, including, possibly, Ms Fleming herself. But before any major discussion can begin as to the role of the ‘divine femine’ in religion!torn world , dominated entirely by male egocentrics, the source of the divination in Rusalka must be revisited. It should become clear to most people, one: that the change in Dvorak’s plan for a curt ending is not supported either by the nature of Rusalka or the antecedents to the ﬁnal cadence as emotioally manipulated by him. And two: that however fortuitous it was that Ms Fleming’s intuitions and emotioanal make!up led her to interpret as she did, the interpretation resonates anthropologically in the origin, role and destiny of woman in modern society. Before such a debate can begin, the mechanics of what has happened should be made clear. And the rest of this article is devoted to that end.
= == = =
When Renee Fleming was asked in an inverview what aria she liked to sing most, she replied instantly: ‘The Song to the Moon, from Rusalka, is my signature piece.” I don't think people in general understand to what lengths Ms Fleming has gone to make this aria her ‘signature piece’. At the end of this article , I hope it becomes clear why -and how -- she made this conﬁdent response; for , in truth, Rusalka does bear the indelible stamp of Ms Fleming’s initials. Not only that but , amongst other things, she has shamelessly broken all Dvorak's rules and, in the process, has left all other Divas at an unutterable disadvantage. No comparison demonstrates these claims more clearly than that obtaining when Ms Fleming’s very polished interpretation of Rusalka is juxtaposed with that of the coleen from Krasnodar, Ms Netrebko. While both Divas, Russian and American, are entirely adorable, I have to confess a weakness. I am incurably in love with Anna Netrebko’s girlish ways and Russian voice. Above all else, I want to hear her sing Russalka at her best. As painful as it is to admit it, I feel at the moment that she has to learn some more discipline: and what’s even worse -she has to learn it from Ms Fleming! Indeed, she cannot learn it from any other living Diva. There is no other way! I believe that Anna Netrebko can be the best Rusalka that (n)ever lived only if she can learn something -- something very precious -- from Ms.Fleming. What could one accomplished Diva possibly learn from another? And how are all other Divas at an unutterable disadvantage? Surely these outrageous statements require an explanation -- if not an apology! If one might be permitted to apologise after one has explained, the apology will be better appreciated. But ﬁrst one should listen to these two Divas ostensibly singing the same song. Let us listen to Anna Netrebko ﬁrst. She prays to the moon to be sent her prince of love. ‘Silvery moon’, she sings, shine on us, shine on us Moon ahhhhh! Moon, Shine on us. These are the hopeful sentiments upon which her ﬁnal few notes are devoted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iLqXZHO45o&feature=related The irritating props aside, this is really a wonderful Rusalka. As ever, her voice is delicious; it is like dark chocolate. It is heavenly, glorious, full and rich, as a rose is rich. But there is the suggestion of a serious fault. It occurs in Rusalka’s ﬁnish. Now let us listen to Renee Fleming’s interpretation of this ‘same’ aria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_lbJ1MaDeo
Anyone with an ear to hear will appreciate the colossal di!erence in the interpretation of the ﬁnal cadence. But since the cadence is the climax, it sums up the whole song. Don’t let anyone tell you that the tail does not wag the dog; without a tail, the dog, the ﬁsh and the Diva are apt to lose their balance. And in a Diva this is fatal. ‘Silvery moon’, she sings, shine on us, shine on us MOON, AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Moon, SHINE ON US! In Fleming's cadence , we get a totally di!erent ending, not just a longer and more angry ending, but one that is calculated to rebalance the harmonies that went before. It is more of a ‘completion’, as understood in musical technology, than an ‘ending’. The climax is not a matter of chronology as one might well imagine in a Coda. On the contrary, it is a bit like what the Bible says: ‘that which shall be ﬁrst shall be last, and that which shall be last shall be ﬁrst’. It is sometimes like that with musical matters also. It is a matter of history - a history that has strong reﬂexive resonances, so that what has transpired since the sounding of the ﬁrst tonic is revisitable aurally (like a recapitulation in the clasical sonata) at any time before the the ﬁnal tonic kicks in. What this means is that every single note, interval, marking, contour and musical event is both transparent and answerable at the ﬁnal cadential climax. When people say that ‘so-and-so died. His whole life ﬂashed before him before he died’. That is precisely what the cadential climax does in Rusalka and Ms Fleming has engineered it such that, without Dvorak’s help, everyone has time enough to ponder with their ears upon the purport of Rusalka’s entire aria. In this way, and in this sense, all of Fleming’s labours are revisited, relived, complimented and rewarded; all her previous toil resonates anew as she gathers them into a most poignant climax, which becomes by right the cornucopia of the aria’s emotional angst. Anna Netrebko, however, even if blessed with an unbeatable voice and a deﬁnite language advantage, allows her labours in the end to be somewhat squandered. She lets her work, and the beautiful way she has worked the cadences throughout the aria, slip like a triﬂe into a Czech lake. The overall e!ect is that the technique (and musicality) of Ms Fleming defeats by far the natural outpourings of Anna Netrebko, as well as Dvorak’s original invention! In some ways, of course, it is not Anna's fault. But, then, whose fault is it? How come these two Divas seem in the ﬁnal cadence to be ostensibly singing from two identical scores , yet sound so di!erent? Is it the fault of her minders, trainers, and teachers? I have said that the two Divas sang ‘ostensibly’ from the same song.That is what we are led to believe. And in so far as ‘Song to the Moon’, was written by Dvorak in G ﬂat Major and in " time, that is the case. But in examining the aria’s ﬁnal cadence, we have found a most remarkable contrast between that sung by Netrebko and that sung by Fleming. It is only when we hear Ms Fleming’s ﬁnal cadence does it dawn on us that the Divas could be singing from two totally di!erent scores. In conjoining the climax to the ﬁnal cadence, the emotional prayer of the Water-nymph has been one of exponential proportions. Perhaps it is this disproportion that needs to be explained. The aria has been so constructed by Dvorak that the ﬁnal cadence -- indeed, the ﬁnal few notes -- are the moment of the aria's climax. To bring both climax and ﬁnal cadence together in one moment is no mean feat on Dvorak’s part ; it demonstrates his genius in these matters.
But this cadential climax is also unusual in another way. In order to enhance its impact, Dvorak allows the cadence to dawdle close to a recitative base, then with the speed and assent of the entry to Nessun Dorma, it rockets upwards in sequential momentum to the high B ﬂat in the Soprano’s register, and only then crashes -- dives, in fact -- to a sudden sub-aquatic tonic. It is truly wonderful stu!: this ﬁnal cadence alone is the female version of Nessun Dorma! How, one might ask, is it claimed that the Divas are singing from a di!erent score? To understand what has happened is not easy to explain. if we listen to several Divas, all singing the exact same aria -- say, Lucia Popp, Gabriela Benackova, Milada Subrtova, Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming -- it will soon become evident that Ms Fleming -- not Anna Netrebko -- is the odd Diva out. All the rest sing Dvorak's Rusalka as directed. Maybe the directions are the problem; for notwithstanding his emotionally powerful leadin to the cadential climax, Dvorak -- perhaps for other reasons -- only devotes two thirds of a bar to the high B ﬂat, or , in any event, a short note and a short-circuited resolution to the climax he has otherwise so meticulously prepared for something more exciting. It sounds great. But if you listen to any of the Divas -- or as in this case, to Anna Netrebko -- you will hear this ﬁnal, somewhat sudden and curt -- almost chastising -- descent at the end. Indeed, one may go away with the feeling that one has heard a splendid aria, well sung, but too suddenly ended. And this may have been the speciﬁc aim of Dvorak: one is not always acquainted with Czechoslovakian Waternymphs as the maestro. In any event, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to 'YOU TUBE' to hear it: and while there at it , to get a gander of Anna Nebtrebko in a bikini. But It is only when one listens to Renee Fleming’s singular interpretation that one becomes aware that one is in the presence of a much more revolutionary Rusalka than was hitherto contemplated. Anna Netrebko (as Rusalka) has prayed that the Moon might send her princely lover to her. After her prayers, she submerges herself like a submarine with girlish haste and almost Christian contrition. As we have seen, Ms Fleming does not come in a bikini; neither is she in a swimming mood, nor, for that matter, is she likely to be fobbed o! by hunky silhouttes. If anything, she is furious. We all know that like Ms Netrebko, she has prayed most fervently -- movingly, in fact -- to an indi!erent moon; but, now that it is time for her to take her departure, she refuses to play the role of the fat lady: she simply will not budge unil she has had her say. She remains on in o#ce un-apologetically deﬁant, with anger in her eyes, terror in her tongue and revolution in her heart. Like Hamlet , she is now Christian or Pagan to whatever end may come, but that end cannot be indi!erence! When and where all the other Divas have gone, Ms Fleming will not go -- not even for Dvorak! So, when Ms Fleming (as Rusalka) climaxes, there is no scurrying into the safety of a lake. On the contrary, the earth trembles. When she reaches the high B ﬂat in the ﬁnal cadence, far from bailing out modestly, she holds on to the B ﬂat ‘for bare life’ (if one might use such an apt expression): and she seems to hold on to it forever, which is maybe twice, three times-- but more likely ten times -- longer than any other Diva (including Anna Netrebko) : so long, in fact, that the orchestra have packed it in and are taming their break, while Ms Fleming, still vibrating ‘in ﬂagrante delicioso’, sees the aria through to the last syllable of its emotional obligation : ‘durchgefuert’, as Schonberg would say! In this climax, she is the consummate creative artist - and I personally don’t
care too much that she sings Czech with an American Spillvill accent: (which, incidentally ,was where Dvorak spoke Czech to his Czech friends and ex-pats.) At ﬁrst, one doesn’t know what TV programme one is on. It’s like something one would see on one of David Attenborough’s wild-life programmes; for Ms Fleming turns herself on stage into a raging tigress. In order to protect something primordial , and red in tooth and in claw, this modest American Diva now wrings and tears at the tune’s hind-quarters until the entire aria is purged of its anaemic short breadths. Amazingly, she holds the aria to its organic high promise. She compels and hurls it to its logical and emotional conclusion. There she stands above the Gods (and the camera man) on Olympus, vibrating in catharsis a B ﬂat with which she consciously purges all that has preceded it , until the emotional charge has travelled cap-a-pe from its ﬁrst to its last tonic, and has ﬂowed into its ﬁnal moonlit syllable. Only then are all issues resolved. Only then can the orchestra go home to their families. Only then is the aria allowed to close, not so much with a whimper as with a whimper after an earth-shattering, all-merciful, mother of all rumbles-in-the-jungle! Renee Fleming has re-written Dvorak; Dvorak would hardly recognise ‘his’ aria or understand the emotional re-orientation. In many ways,therefore, Rusalka has become more Fleming than Dvorak, more American than Czech. The only question pending is ; has she done the music and Rusalka a service? By her prolongation of one well-chosen, emotionally strategic note, she has changed utterly the whole tone, balance, meaning, emotional discharge and general aesthetic of the Water-nymph's entire aria. In her person and in her performance a terrible, scorching, searing beauty is born! But further, she has transformed Rusalka’ s B ﬂat into an interminable primal scream -- a demand for human love from a cold world and a cold moon. In true pagan if not in American style, Ms Fleming commands the moon to provide her with a lover -- predating the Judeo-Christian opportunity to leap in and claim that Christianity and the Holy Family would make do (after the sacrament of matrimony) , if the pagan moon didn’t . Of course, the one remedial belief is as cold and barren as the other, but Ms Fleming’s impatience and anger, is immediate and modern. Russalka is the life-giving, lifea#rming fertility of Sile-na-gig, or what many have called the ‘divine feminine’. She is not prepared to live without love -- nor will she put up with the excuses of a maledominated monogamy or a cold and distant moon. Personally speaking, I can’t imagine any self-respecting Czech Water-nymph complaining about the new arrangement. It is true that Rusalka has undergone a process that is otherwise known as transubstantiation, where the nymph changes from an uncruciﬁed but pining mermaid at the mercy of the moon, to a goddess, a Diva, that commands the moon and the natural world-order (including the new one!)to do to all women what is no more than its fertile and servile duty. From a plea and a prayer to a pagan command is not an easy transition, but Ms Fleming has accomplished it in spades - so much so , in fact, that she has now made this beautiful pagan hymn unsingable in any other way except her way. And I for one am most grateful for it, not least because it is the speciﬁc business of the Diva to protect the Water-nymph, whose entire species is very much in jeopardy of extinction at the hands of world religions and other male war-mongers.
When I shall hear Anna Netrebko singing Rusalka from Ms Fleming’s hymn-sheet , I will know that Water-nymphs shall have been saved, that I shall have gone to Heaven, and that all my prayers as well as my apologies shall have become redundant! Finally, while it appears of no consequence, one still sneakishly wonders from whom the camera-man, particularly at the aria’s great climax, got his directions. If it was from Ms
Fleming’s impressario , then he certainly got his money's worth. If, however, it came from Ms Fleming herself, then it constitutes an even more worrying stroke of genius than that exhibited in her singing !
Seamus Breathnach www.irish-criminsology.com