Philippine folklore takes center stage in UP rendition of Rusalka, a lyric fairy tale opera

Is love ever possible between two completely different beings?

In the case of Rusalka, it is possible but not without a tragic ending.

Rusalka is a Czeck opera by Antonin Dvořák with libretto by poet Jaroslav Kvapil. This sad, modern fairy tale that has elements of Denmark’s The Little Mermaid and Germany’s Undine was first performed in Prague in 1901. Kvapil wrote the libretto even before he met Dvořák. The composer, upon reading Kvapil’s text, quickly set to work on his opera which he finished in seven months.

The universal theme of love, pain and sacrifice has made Rusalka a worldwide favorite in recent years. Wanting therefore to come up with a version that was unique and memorable, Dean Jose Buenconsejo and Assistant Professor Alegria Ferrer of the UP College of Music thought of staging Rusalka with a distinctive Filipino setting.

The collaboration between anthropology-enthusiast Buenconsejo, and Ferrer who is drawn to Greek theories of drama resulted in an imaginary multi-layer dimension that can be accessed only through symbolic anthropology directly linked to cosmology.

Buenconsejo explained that the Filipino version “juxtaposed without translating the original music of the opera sung in English with characters whose names are familiar to Filipinos.” In its Philippine premiere, Rusalka, alternately played by Fame Flores and Bianca Camille Lopez, is a sirena who lives in the underworld. Rusalka’s father, the Nuno ng Lawa and the witch Jezibaba or Hukluban belong to a higher world whose creatures are more powerful and knowledgeable than the rusalkas and the sprites (mga diwata). They have greater abilities, too, than the humans who live in another dimension. Rusalka was enamored with one of the humans Ginoo, portrayed by Malvin Beethoven Macaset and Christian Paul Anthony Nagano.

According to the director’s note:

“The problem began when Rusalka transgressed cosmic boundaries by wanting to become human who had faculties of love and lust. But Rusalka did not know that. Rusalka’s father and the witch knew [as] both had the power to see both worlds.”

The full-length three-hour opera, whose cast consisted of performers from  the music schools of UP, the University of Sto. Tomas, Sta. Isabel College and St Scholastica’s College, was staged on 11-12 September 2014 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and on 23-24 September at the Abelardo Hall Auditorium in UP Diliman.

Ferrer was the stage and music director while Associate Professor Danilo Silvestre was the scenographer. Prof. Josefino Chino Toledo conducted the chamber orchestra Grupo 21/20.

The performance was dedicated to Isabelo de los Reyes, an ilustrado born in the late 19th century. He authored El Folklore Filipino which not only documented Philippine folk beliefs and practices but also showed the “uniqueness of Philippine society in relation to universal truths that art and music can vividly portray in our senses.” Last year marked the 150th year of de los Reyes’ birth.

Rusalka was supported in part by the UP Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs through its Enhanced Creative Work and Research Grant.