„Rusalka“ – finally revised. The new Urtext Edition of Dvorák’s Opera
The new edition of Antonín Dvoráks masterwork presents not a “new” Rusalka – conductors, performers, and audiences will find the same Czech masterpiece that has been enjoyed for over 100 years but the oprea in its definitive form, with all practical and musicological issues considered, well-documented, and clearly presented.
Antonín Dvorák’s “Rusalka” is one of the most famous and beloved of all Czech operas. This “lyric fairy tale” has been enchanting audiences around the world since its first performance on 31 March 1901 in Prague under the baton of Karel Kovarovic. Poet and playwright Jaroslav Kvapil (1868–1950) was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (1837), as well as the legends of Undine and Mélusine. His libretto tells of a water nymph who falls in love with a Prince, gives up her beautiful voice to become human, yet is ultimately rejected. Though a fantastic tale, the story conveys universal themes through its richly symbolic text. Kvapil’s poeticism combines with Dvorák’s sumptuous and heartfelt music to create a true masterpiece.
Since 1960, the definitive version of the opera has been the score prepared by Jarmil Burghauser (1921–1997) as part of the Dvorák Complete Edition. While a landmark of scholarship in its time, by modern standards the edition leaves much to be desired. The editorial approach is not uniform, and it is often difficult to know where and how Burghauser has intervened. While in some places he faithfully reproduces even the most peculiar notation from Dvorák, in others he has made extensive modifications without comment. As has been the case with much of Dvorák’s oeuvre, it was clear that a new edition of the opera was necessary.
The key sources for the opera are housed in the Antonín Dvorák Museum (part of the Czech Museum of Music) and the Archives of the National Theatre in Prague, who graciously provided them for study. Dvorák’s autograph full score is well preserved and contains numerous alterations and annotations. He worked quickly, and his characteristic style of notation is not known for precision and consistency! As he did with other editions, Burghauser studied the modifications to the autograph, attempting to uncover any earlier layer, and thoroughly documented them as “Version 1” in his critical notes. These revisions, however, were mostly made in the course of completing the autograph, and so while they can offer a glimpse into the composer’s working process, they are rarely relevant to the final version.
A fascinating source is the manuscript full score held by the National Theatre. This was prepared and used for the premiere, as well as subsequent productions for decades. Years of use as the conductor’s score left layers upon layers of markings, yet in them is recorded a wealth of practical performance history. The challenge, of course, is to disentangle these strata and determine which can be judged as authorized by the composer. Conductors Jaroslav Krombholc and Václav Talich both used the score, and Talich, in particular, made extensive modifications with the primary goal to refine the balance between the orchestra and voices. What is key to the edition, however, are the earliest layers of markings: those by Karel Kovarovic and by Dvorák himself.
Complementing the theatre score are the original performance parts used for the premiere. Consulting these allows us to take full advantage of the corrections and alterations made throughout rehearsals and performances. While it is nearly impossible to know which markings in the parts were explicitly authorized by the composer as part of the premiere preparations, they preserve a record of hundreds of performances. This practical insight from musicians can highlight minor errors and discrepancies and provide potential editorial suggestions.
Other relevant sources include the extent manuscript piano reductions, which were unknown to Burghauser. The earliest is that prepared for the rehearsals at the National Theatre, made at the same time as the performing parts. Two other copies were made with Dvorák’s involvement, and these contain revisions and added a German translation by Josa Will. These served as the basis for the first edition of the vocal score, published posthumously by Mojmír Urbánek in 1905. The arrangement was later credited to Josef Famera (1883–1914) by Otakar Šourek in his 1938 revision. Famera served as an accompanist at the National Theatre at the time, and so it is certainly possible that he made the reduction, but his working autograph has not survived, and so it is difficult to prove his authorship with certainty.
The new edition
The new edition of “Rusalka” follows the same guiding principles as the new series of Bärenreiter Urtext editions of Dvorák’s works and is overseen by the team of experts at Bärenreiter Praha. This ensures that editorial decisions are consistent, carefully considered, and clearly documented for performers and scholars.
The 1960 edition introduced a number of errors and misprints, and many expressive markings found in the sources were omitted. Articulations and dynamics were frequently unified, without any comment or indication that a change was made.
Dvorák’s notation can appear inconsistent, yet there is often a logic behind it. For example, a recurring rhythmic pattern (see Example 1) has slightly different articulation depending on whether the passage is fortissimo or mezzoforte. Standardizing it throughout, as was done previously, eliminates the subtle differences that were intended. Our approach is always to follow the sources and evaluate every instance for the composer’s intention. Some significant changes resulted from identifying accidental omissions by Dvorák, such as leaving out an instrument (see Example 2) following a page turn, or not carefully marking string pizzicato vs. arco (see Example 3). These have been corrected by comparing with analogous passages and the other sources.
There are many subtle differences from the old edition due to the choice of primary sources. Burghauser used Dvorák’s autograph manuscript as the main source for his edition, and only occasionally refers to the theatre score. The new edition uses the theatre score as the main source, but refers closely to the autograph, and utilizes both to present the authoritative version of the opera. Dvorák was present at rehearsals, and notes in his autograph refer frequently to the theatre score. His corrections almost always match those marked by Kovarovic, showing that there was a regular dialogue and that Dvorák was closely involved in the preparations for the premiere. Not all changes and corrections made in one score are reflected in the other, and both sources are needed to fully evaluate each change.
A major example of this is the issue of cuts. Burghauser indicates numerous cuts in the opera, often with no further comment or explanation. The reality, however, is that while all these cuts appear in the theatre score (marked by Kovarovic), not all of them are marked in the autograph. Furthermore, the cuts that are marked by Dvorák sometimes have notes indicating them as “valid” or “not valid” and a few have the appearance of true deletions rather than optional cuts. The new edition adds a footnote to each cut with brief information, and an appendix will list all cuts and provide more details, particularly what performance practice can be gleaned from the sources.
The text of the opera has been revised by Jonáš Hájek, who studied all sources of the libretto and has restored many of the changes Dvorák made to Kvapil’s text. While Burghauser felt these were in error, they can be proven to be intentional when the declamation matches the melody (particularly noticeable in the length of vowels). Singing translations in English (Rodney Blumer) and German (Eberhard Schmidt) are underlaid beneath the original Czech. The new piano reduction is based on the first edition from 1905 (attributed to Famera), revised by Petr Koronthály, and incorporating all revisions from the full score.
Reexamining a work of this magnitude is a daunting task, yet one with the great reward of providing the authoritative version of the opera for generations to come.
Robert Simon (July 2022)