Dvorak and the curse of the one-hit wonder

It’s just bad luck, I suppose, but there are several operas which are defined by one stand-out aria, often consigning the rest of the piece to something of a supporting role.

Puccini’s  ‘Gianni Schicci’  has ‘O mio babino’ at its heart; as his ‘Turandot’ has ‘Nessun Dorma’; even Donizetti’s ‘L’elisir d’amore’  has us all waiting for ‘Una furtiva lagrima‘; and Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ (an opera I would happily never, ever see again) seems to be most well known for ‘Largo Al Factotum’. Whilst the operas of Verdi and Mozart unquestionably have their own big numbers, they are rarely alone, almost always backed up by countless others. Only a couple of nights ago, I was listening to the final, tragic act of ‘La Traviata’ and the glorious tunes just keep coming at you, one after the other: I’ll post on this another time, but today I am concentrating on one of those one-hit wonders.

Antonin Dvorak (1814-94) was the son of a butcher, whose father had been keen for him to follow in his footsteps. Born near Prague, Dvorak, a life-long train spotter, had other ideas and was an accomplished viola player and organist and was fortunate to have an enthusiastic champion in Brahms, who spent much of his time, to little avail, trying to prize him away from his native land to the more musically-established Vienna. He eventually married the sister of the girl he truly loved, an act repeated not so long afterwards by my early-widowed great, great grandfather, Henry Keppel, whose invitation by letter was opened by the wrong recipient, who promptly accepted.(Being an Admiral of the Fleet, he did not feel able to retract it, and did the honourable thing, possibly getting the best of both worlds.)

Dvorak was certainly well traveled, however, coming to the UK on a number of occasions, with a particular affection for the people and scenery of Brighton, especially the sea – of which, of course, he saw nothing at home. And he also made that famous trip to the US, where his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’ received its premier in 1893 to resounding success, and has since been regarded as the greatest thing he ever wrote.

But there were eight before that, and whilst you will often see the eighth in the symphonic repertoire, the others feature far less. His Cello Concerto is right up with the greats, and his ‘Slavonic Dances’  have wide appeal, imbued, as they are, with very detectable national fervour.

Which brings me, at last, in a sort of Ronnie Corbet route, to my main point. Dvorak also wrote nine operas, and even if you have heard of ‘Rusalka’ , most of us would struggle to name many, or any, of the others; and the chances are that you will only be familiar with the ninth’s most  famous number ‘Song to the Moon’. Like many fairy tales, its simple plot is a mixture of romance, magic and an inherent darkness. Rusalka is a water sprite who takes a liking to a prince, but the price demanded by a witch  for leaving the water and the prince’s love is a life of being mute, accompanied by the danger that if he betrays her, the only way she will redeem his love is to agree to kill him: all of which comes about.

The opera was a great success, even if not without the odd hitch on its opening night. The prince, to whom the song is addressed, was, in the context of this blog, completely Brahms and Liszt, and had to be replaced by an unrehearsed stand-in, but who, having hoped to be cast in the role himself, knew it well enough. The aria is a plea to the moon to reveal Rusalka’s love for the prince. Now popular as a concert piece, many of the world’s top sopranos have recorded it, but only very few do it justice: the fact that it is in Czech is an added complication, a notoriously difficult language in which to sing. It came naturally enough to Lucia Popp, her native tongue; and Renee Fleming does it fabulously too; but the American mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, a name which almost has a rhythm of its own, is my favourite. Judge for yourself in this live performance: it is a sublime sound.

I’m sorry, I’ve gone on a little, but I can’t resist one last half-baked idea with you, for which I cannot trace any reference. When Dorothy sings ‘Over the Rainbow’  in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ , she is asking to be released from her dull life in Kansas. Rusalka is making a not dissimilar plea about her own existence. Lifting melodies from classical music for modern adaption is not uncommon, whether unwittingly or with deliberate intent. My ears detect an uncanny similarity in the central theme (2:23) –  I wonder if you agree. Or just see how easily you can slip into the later tune.

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