Dvořák - a scintillating score

An interview with Susanna Mälkki

By Cyril Pesenti and Marion Mirande 04 February 2019

© Elena Bauer / OnP

Dvořák - a scintillating score
Susanna Mälkki is conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra for performances of Rusalka until February 13. Composed by Antonín Dvořák to a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, the work immerses us into a unique, awe-inspiring world which prompts us to reflect on human relationships. Susanna Mälkki seeks ou the music's Czech soul to recreate the work’s traditional colours.

You’re conducting Rusalka at the Opéra Bastille. In your opinion, what are the characteristics of Antonín Dvořák’s music?

Dvořák’s music is the result of a rich synthesis of European styles and proof of his command of a musical art which, in reality, is representative of his own style. Dvořák is certainly no modernist (we can detect the influences of Wagner as well as the Russian and Italian schools in his music), however, he succeeded in developing a unique and distinctive world. As performers, we must respect the Czech style so admirably represented by Czech conductors like Rafael Kubelík and Karel Ančerl. Sometimes, I find that Dvořák’s music is played rather solemnly. Conversely, when you hear traditional Czech orchestras play Dvořák, the character of the music and the orchestral colours are totally different: and that, in particular, comes from the language. I really appreciate that style of playing.

In terms of vocality, how do you get as close as possible to the sound of the spoken Czech language?

With regards to Rusalka, articulation (more than intonation) is a key notion. In Czech, the stress is always placed at the beginning of the word. All sentences are very direct and everything is pronounced immediately. It’s a distinctive approach which the singers need to grasp with as much precision as possible. It is also essential that the orchestra understands this manner of pronouncing. I ask my musicians to not drag out their playing in order to retain the necessary precision to articulate the language. Of course, all this is present in the score and the vocal and orchestral writing.

Do you think that Rusalka is infused with the composer’s symphonic work?

Yes, certainly. In terms of its composition, Rusalka is particularly symphonic. I am influenced by that repertoire, however, ensuring the interaction between orchestral articulation and vocal lines remains one of my priorities. Recordings by Czech orchestras offer a totally unique sound. They have a specific intonation. It’s important to understand that lightness and I’m inspired by that way of playing. Dvořák’s music is not anchored on the earth, it tends more to scintillate. Indeed, the force present in that music, must be expressed in the intonation. It’s also a romantic opera. There are emotional surges to respect whilst not allowing the work to become awash in sentimentalism.

Can we say that Rusalka is the culmination of a wide array of musical ideas associated with theatre?

It’s obvious. The libretto is excellent. Furthermore, all the operas that have been hugely successful have two elements of quality: a libretto and a score in harmony with each another. The work's overall dramaturgy has to function. In Rusalka, there’s a great deal of humour in the libretto which is translated by Dvořák into the music. This is also reflected in Rusalka’s suffering and the prince’s anguish. In my opinion, the musical idea must echo the original idea of the text. My role, as a performer is to understand the composer’s intention, which can often be found in the libretto. Dvořák uses musical ideas in a highly organic way, which makes them less recognisable to the ear than Wagner’s leitmotifs, for example. The work and the composer’s intention are one and the same thing. I try to go beyond the notes to make them come alive. Understanding the composer’s intention allows us to translate it musically.

When you conduct the orchestra do you weave links with Robert Carsen’s production?

Robert Carsen has come up with a psychoanalytical interpretation of the original tale in which Rusalka is prompted to explore her passage into adulthood through an initiatory journey. All tales tell a story which goes beyond their literal message. In this production, the ending is ambiguous. There’s a beauty in sadness “like a smile with tears”. Portraying that is difficult. However, by bringing together the text and the composer’s intention, it is possible to find the requisite magic. Adapting my conducting to the stage direction is essential, but it’s all the more important when voices are involved. For example, in this production, the witch Ježibaba is not presented in a Machiavellian or caricatural way. Instead, she comes across as a woman of experience. On the other hand, the music inextricably contains some snappy sounds. I need to retain that aspect otherwise I’ll contradict the composer’s message. It’s all a question of balance between emphasis on the music and emphasis on the staging. The exchanges with the director are always fascinating. As the conductor, my role is to respect what is written in the score. We have truly succeeded when we manage to find a common solution.    

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