Sunday, February 26, 2006

O Silver Moon

rusalka 2

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

That oft-quoted line from T.S. Eliot pretty much describes the state of Europe today. As Europe continues sleepwalking toward dhimmitude, we must increasingly remind ourselves, through its remaining fragments, of what Europe used to be: vibrant, creative, confident in leading civilization. (Too confident, as 1914-18 was to prove, but that's another story.)

For hundreds of years, Europe's cultural richness was so great that the glow from the continent's many smaller stars was lost next to the radiance of its supernovas. Take, for one example, the operas of Dvořák. Unlike his great symphonies, cello concerto, and chamber music, the operas are rarely performed and even more rarely recorded. You'd imagine there was nothing there. Until recently, I'd never heard any.

Being a great admirer of Dvořák's music, I took the plunge and bought the London label's recording of Rusalka. This is one big league production, with Renée Fleming in the title role, Ben Heppner, and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Charles Mackerras. Released only in 1998, the recording is already a reminder of a rapidly disappearing Europe.

About five years ago, PolyGram Records (which included the big three European labels -- London/Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon) sold itself to the U.S. media giant Universal, which confines its classical releases to reissues from the PolyGram vault and occasional "mostly Mozart" hits by superstar performers. This highly expensive, big-name Rusalka production would never be greenlighted today. ("Are you serious? You want to hire Renée Fleming to sing an opera nobody's heard of in Hungarian? What? Okay, okay, Czech, same difference. Get outta my face and don't come back till you learn what sells. And hey, we're a week behind schedule on James Galway and His 101 Flutes Play Pachelbel's Canon and Other Hits."

So what about Rusalka? Well, it's probably not a "great" opera, just a hugely enjoyable one, and sometimes more than that. Listen to Fleming sing the aria "O Silver Moon." For sensuous, heart-tugging beauty, you can set it on a pedestal next to anything by Verdi or Puccini. The lyrics are probably better in Czech, but even translated into Opera English, they conjure up a magical world that you can believe in while the music takes you there:

(Rusalka, singing to the moon,
whose beams now light up the whole landscape.
It is a beautiful summer's night.)

O moon in the velvet heavens,
your light shines far,
you roam throughout the whole world,
gazing into human dwellings.
O moon, stay a while,
tell me where my beloved is! ...
O tell him, silver moon,
that my arms enfold him,
in the hope that for at least a moment
he will dream of me. ...
Shine on him, wherever he may be,
and tell him of the one who awaits him here! ...
If a human soul should dream of me,
may he still remember me on awakening;
o moon, do not fade away!

"These fragments." O silver moon, do not fade away.


Guessedworker said...

Hi Rick,

Rusalka I have never had the opportunity to listen to. The Dvořák in my library is mostly piano pieces, of which I particularly admire the Quintet No.2 in E flat. The Piano Concerto in G Minor is always enjoyable, too.

Dvořák falls in to that category of late 19th/early 20th century composers who found a musical form for the love of nation. They include the likes of Smetana, Sibelius, Paderewsky and Vaughan Williams among many others (and exclude Ravel and all points left).

Their music is still important, for through it reverence for the soil can still be acknowledged even if, in this noisily Marxian age, it can scarcely be expressed in other ways.

It need hardly be said that there is no great music by which to celebrate diversity.

Thanks for a nice post.

Rick Darby said...

Thank you, Guessedworker.

I like most of the late Romantic composers, but of all of them, Dvořák goes most directly to the heart.