Poor Rusalka. The title character of Antonin Dvorak’s opera is a love-struck water nymph, misunderstood and scorned. She has long been appreciated but was not exactly celebrated as an operatic heroine for decades before slowly emerging as a darling of the opera world.
But now, “Rusalka” is having a moment that may charm even the most jaded of water nymphs. The opera will make its debut at La Scala in Milan next month, 122 years after it first delighted audiences in Dvorak’s native Czech homeland in 1901. Many might say it’s long overdue at one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, but for the creative team assembled at La Scala it’s a chance to discover, or rediscover, an opera still being interpreted more than a century later.
“Rusalka,” playing six performances from June 6 to 22, is based on Slavic folklore (with parallels to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”). Rusalka lives in a lake with her water-goblin father and falls in love with a prince. With the help of a local witch and a potion, she decides to become a human to win her prince. Let’s just say that things don’t exactly go her way.
The opera is known mostly for its first-act aria “Song to the Moon” — championed by many high-profile sopranos over the last few decades, including Renée Fleming — which has helped cement its position at several major opera houses. And now at La Scala.
“I have directed at many opera houses and in the repertoire of each of them there was at least one opera that was conspicuously absent,” Dominique Meyer, the artistic director and chief executive of La Scala, said by email. “When I was directing the Vienna [State] Opera, we realized that ‘Anna Bolena’ had never been performed there. At La Scala, something similar happened with ‘Rusalka.’”
Mr. Meyer said the debut production was the ideal vehicle to bring back Emma Dante, a theater and film director known for her 2013 movie “A Street in Palermo” as well as avant-garde theater and opera productions. Mr. Meyer cited her “imagination and sensitivity.”
“I’m happy to come back to La Scala with an opera whose protagonist is a woman,” Ms. Dante said in a video interview. “My first time was with ‘Carmen,’ and I felt a strong connection with this woman, just as I do now with Rusalka.”
Ms. Dante said she feels Rusalka’s journey into the human world — and her desire to be accepted there — is a timeless topic and applicable today in a world of refugees and political turmoil worldwide.
“She arrives in a land that is not her land, so I’m interested in that transformation,” Ms. Dante said. “I’m also deeply interested in how the community does not accept her diversity.”
She worked with the costume designer Vanessa Sannino and the set designer Carmine Maringola, both of whom she has collaborated with before, to do more than emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story.
“This Rusalka won’t have the fish tail like a mermaid, but she will have tentacles like an octopus, which you can see in a wheelchair when she first comes onto land,” Ms. Dante explained. “Also, we won’t have a lake, but instead the church and the prince’s palace will both be flooded to represent a world adrift. This flooded world is a catastrophic cause of nonacceptance, of intolerance toward those of different origins and appearance.”
Ms. Sannino also wanted to emphasize the witch and the prince in this otherworldly setting.
“We wanted the witch to be like a madonna, monochromatic red and immense and made of muscle fibers,” she said. “And the lightness that we decided to give the prince can be found in the flowers and butterflies in his cloak and in the armor he wears.”
This approach seems fitting for an opera based on folklore, and not, say, a romantic Italian opera based on a famous book and specific to its time and place. It’s also open to discovery from a musical perspective.
“It’s genius music, but Dvorak was not known as a typical opera composer, and therefore it comes with some difficulties that might not always sell the piece,” said the Czech conductor Tomas Hanus in a phone interview from his home in Brno, Czech Republic. He is making his debut at La Scala with “Rusalka,” which he also conducted at the Vienna State Opera (in his debut there in 2017) and in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Munich. “The Czech composing schools did not always teach how to write these big romantic operatic scores. It’s very dependent on the interpretation of singers and conductors.”
That is a sentiment echoed by the Ukrainian soprano Olga Bezsmertna, who will sing the title role, which she has come to adore (she sang it at the Vienna State Opera in 2014 and 2020 and last year in Bratislava, Slovakia). It becomes more layered each time she sings it, she said.
“It’s a very difficult opera, but my voice feels at home because I don’t have to push,” Ms. Bezsmertna said in a phone interview from her home in Vienna. “My first time in Vienna, I jumped in five days before the first performance. I honestly didn’t have time to think about what to do. But it’s perfect for a lyric soprano voice.”
Ms. Bezsmertna has grown into the character more in the past few years, she said, especially the journey Rusalka takes both emotionally and musically.
“The second act is so completely different from the first act because she is destroyed,” Ms. Bezsmertna said. “It’s not a fairy tale anymore. She’s alone, and the prince loves another woman. Life has changed completely.”
And it’s in that fairy-tale-versus-real-world situation where “Rusalka” seems to flourish, despite its dark corners, for those who know the opera or for first-time viewers at the debut at La Scala.
“Death is very present in ‘Rusalka,’ but we have to keep this idea of lightness,” Ms. Dante said. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s still a fairy tale. And we always have to look at death as an occasion for rebirth.”