Rusalka is an opera in four acts, six tableaux, by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, composed during 1848-1855. The Russian libretto was adapted by the composer from Pushkin's incomplete dramatic poem of the same name. The premiere took place on 4 May 1856 (Old Style) at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Although much of Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka is fairly conventional in musical form and style, its singular innovation for the history of Russian music in particular is the application of "melodic recitative" at certain points in the drama. This type of recitative consists of lyrical utterances which change continuously according to the dramatic situation, with likewise varied accompaniment in the orchestra. Dargomyzhsky was to apply this technique of vocal composition on a small scale in his songs and on a large scale in his final opera, The Stone Guest.
Dargomyzhsky’s opera is closely linked with the Mariinsky Theatre. At the Circus Theatre, located on the site now occupied by the Mariinsky, the first production was premiered on 4 (16, Old Style) May 1856, and it was not a particular success due to the use of sets and costumes from stock and the large number of cuts made to the score. Following the opera’s revival in 1865 at the recently built Mariinsky Theatre, however, under the baton of the outstanding conductor Eduard Franceviи Nбpravnнk and with the magnificent Russian singers Osip Petrov as the Miller, Yulia Platonova as Natasha, Fyodor Komissarzhevsky as the Prince and Daria Leonova as the Princess, true success came to Rusalka. “At last the public has come to understand my music. Women and, without exaggeration, even men wiped the tears from their eyes. The opera is, at last, being performed my way...” the delighted composer reflected in a letter.
Alexander Dargomyzhsky made an inestimable contribution to the history of Russian music and Russian opera in particular, creating a new genre following in the footsteps of Glinka’s historically heroic A Life for the Tsar and the fairytale epic Ruslan and Lyudmila: it was the first Russian everyday psychological musical drama. Modest Musorgsky called Alexander Dargomyzhsky “a great teacher of musical truth” for the ability of his musical language to convey nuances of the characters’ psychological state of mind and the situation. The highly respected music critic Alexander Serov also considered “the truth of the musical expression” a highly important factor in the composer’s talent.
The libretto was written by the composer himself and he took great care with Alexander Pushkin’s text, making minimal amendments. Dargomyzhsky’s music conveys the artistic essence of the dramatic plot of the tragedy: it is not no much about the vengeful retribution of the mermaid, the Miller’s deceived daughter as it is about the remorse and spiritual transformation of the Prince.
Starting with a production in 1897 at the Mamontov Private Russian Opera in Moscow (conducted by Sergei Rachmaninoff with Fyodor Chaliapin as the Miller), Rusalka came to be one of the most popular Russian operas. The opera returned to the Mariinsky Theatre in 1875 and again in 1904 (directed by Osip Paleиek). It was this production that was revived in the Soviet era in 1929 and which was staged until 1941. The opera was then dropped from the repertoire of the Kirov Theatre. Now, in the year marking two centuries since the birth of Alexander Dargomyzhsky, the Mariinsky Theatre is restoring one of the finest Russian operas to its repertoire.