Rusalka (Mermaid) (opera in three acts)
The performance has 2 intermissions
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes
Music by Antonin Dvorak
Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil
From the very outset of his creative career, Dvořák regarded opera as the centremost genre in music. Born at a time when the idea of a national opera house was born in Bohemia, the composer in his youth had the possibility of discovering and familiarising himself with the musical stage and acquiring rich practical experience. Having worked for ten years as a violist in the orchestra of Prague’s Provisional Theatre, Dvořák personally brought about the birth of Czech national opera: in 1866 the position of Principal Conductor was occupied by Bedřich Smetana, who had overseen the premieres of his first operatic works – The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) and Dalibor, which went on to become classics of Czech musical theatre. At the close of his life, Dvořák, regretting the fact that his operatic legacy lay in the shadow of his works in other genres, took a decision: “I want to dedicate all of my powers to the creation of an opera.” It was during these years that Rusalka was written – the second last and the finest of all ten works by the composer written for the musical stage.
The unhappy love story of Rusalka for the Prince drew the attention of many of the great men of the pen and of music. In the “romantic” 19th century it was particularly popular: de la Motte Fouquй and Zhukovsky, Pushkin and Andersen, Hoffmann and Lortzing, Davydov and Dargomyzhsky had all turned their eyes on it… The basis of Dvořák’s opera lies in a version of the subject written by the young dramatist Jaroslav Kvapil in the folkloric style. The love story skilfully weaves together Czech sources, the poetry of which utterly enraptured the composer, fairytales by Bojena Nemtsova, ballads by Karel Jaromír Erben and folk legends. Inspired by the libretto, Dvořák worked extremely quickly and the score was completed after seven months.
Rusalka is a beautiful, lyric fairytale, where the Czech genius’ melodic gift and his skill as a symphonic composer appear at their most majestic. There is much in it that brings to mind another musical story of a fairytale girl and a worldly man – Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. Particularly expressive are Dvořák’s inspired scenes of the nature of Bohemia, woodland romanticism, the fantasy world of mermaids, forest wardens and, already familiar from the vivid symphonic “portraits” by the composer, the characters of the Water-Sprite and the Witch (in this case Ježibaba – the Czech version of Baba Yaga). One masterpiece of Dvořák’s lyricism comes in Rusalka’s song “My moon, in the distant heavens” from Act I: filled with light femininity and Slavic intimacy, it is a true jewel in the crown of the soprano repertoire.
Presented at the National Theatre of Prague in 1901, Rusalka became Dvořák’s loudest triumph in opera (the role of the principal female character was performed by outstanding Russian singer and Mariinsky Theatre soloist Maria Mikhailova). Over the subsequent five years, the opera was performed around eight hundred times, and soon began to win over opera houses and audiences across the globe.
Not far from the hut of Ježibaba, Rusalka sits forlornly on the shore of the lake. The wood nymphs have awoken the old Water-Sprite, Rusalka’s father, with their singing, and he has swum to the surface of the lake. Frightened, the nymphs depart, and Rusalka tells her father of her grief. She has fallen passionately in love with a handsome prince and is ready to do whatever it takes just to be with him. She wishes to acquire a human soul. The Water-Sprite is dismayed: this love will bring his daughter much woe and grief. Because having a soul means to suffer! However, touched by his daughter’s prayers, he sends her for advice to Ježibaba. Rusalka sets off for the old woman. The latter agrees to assist, but on a certain condition: when she becomes human, Rusalka will have no power of speech, and if she loses the love of the Prince she will be transformed into a will-o’-the wisp of the swamp and lead her beloved to death. Rusalka agrees to the risks. The transformation is complete. As the sun rises over the lake, the Prince appears, having got lost while on a hunt. He sees the beautiful maiden, and, falling in love with her at first sight, he takes her to his castle.
AT the castle, the Prince is preparing for his wedding. The servants are all discussing the event in as lively a way as could be imagined, and are surprised by the mysterious appearance of the bride. The bride is downcast. A beautiful and coquettish Princess who is visiting the castle is taking up more and more of the Prince’s attention. The ball begins, and celebratory music can be heard while the guests make merry in a carefree whirlwind of joy. The Water-Sprite, who has stolen into the park, sees with pain how his daughter is suffering in silence. Rusalka tries to draw her betrothed to her side, but he rejects her. In front of Rusalka, her eyes filled with misery, the Prince declares his love for the Princess. Rusalka runs from the castle, protesting to the Water-Sprite of her betrothed’s infidelity. The Water-Sprite if filled with wrath, and he curses the Prince to die; taking his daughter with him, he disappears into a deep whirlpool.
Rusalka returns once more to the lake in the woods. She has been transformed into a will-o’-the wisp and is cursed to roam eternally. Ježibaba offers to remove the curse; to do this Rusalka must kill the Prince. But could she raise her hand against the man who means more to her than life itself? The Hunter and the Kitchen-Boy come to Ježibaba. They ask for medicine for the Prince who is dying from woe: his transitory fascination with the Princess has passed, and the Prince’s thoughts belong to his bride who has vanished without trace. The Water-Sprite drives the servants away, but soon the Prince himself appears at the lake. He calls on Rusalka, and she appears from the watery depths. The Prince joyfully advances towards her but she stops him. Rusalka still loves her betrothed passionately. She forgives him her suffering. Her touch will be fatal to him. But the Prince does not need a life where his beloved does not exist. He kisses Rusalka and dies in her arms.
Rusalka (Mermaid) (opera in three acts)
on the playbill