Long Story Short
A little mermaid gives her voice to a wicked witch in exchange for a chance to win the human prince she loves. But unlike (ahem) some versions of this story, ours ends in tragedy, misery, and the kiss of death.
The Three Wood Nymphs are playful supernatural forest creatures. They especially love teasing and tormenting the old water goblin.
The Water Goblin is Rusalka's father.
Rusalka is a water nymph who yearns to be human and to love a human Prince. Her name is simply Czech for "Water Nymph."
Jezibaba, a witch who lives in the forest, loves to barter and gamble with other supernatural creatures. She'll cast the spell of your choice, if you're willing to pay the price. The only thing she likes about human beings is how they taste. Her name means "Forest Witch."
The Prince likes beautiful, exotic women especially when they talk to him.
The Foreign Princess has her lovely eyes on the Prince.
The Hunter, The Gamekeeper, and The Kitchen Boy work in the Prince's castle. Because the young Kitchen Boy's voice has not yet broken, he is sung by a mezzo-soprano.
Where and When?
A fairy-tale kingdom of the Czech imagination.
What's Going On?
Rusalka, our mermaid heroine, differs from the other nymphs, who are content to cavort and caper deep in the forest. Rusalka longs to be a human being so she can experience love with the young Prince who often comes to bathe in her pond and never knows that she is in the water with him, touching him. Although her father warns her that human life is overrated, Rusalka strikes a fatal bargain with the witch Jezibaba: if Rusalka gives Jezibaba her beautiful voice, Jezibaba will loan Rusalka a human body. Rusalka must use the body to win the love of her Prince. If he falls in love with her, she will win human life for real; if he fails to love her, both of them will be damned. The deal is made and the prince discovers the lovely, silent Rusalka... but will he fall in love with her?
The next scene takes place at the Prince's castle. A wedding celebration is underway - yet no one knows exactly whom the Prince will marry! The leading candidates include a beautiful mute girl he found while hunting in the forest (that's Rusalka), and a voluptuous and far more articulate foreign princess. Will the Prince choose the pretty girl with nothing to say? Or does he prefer the challenge of bantering with the witty foreigner?
Rusalka, intimidated by the foreign princess, returns to the forest and begs the witch for help. Jezibaba will release Rusalka from her bargain, but only if she stabs her Prince to death. And this Rusalka cannot do. She loses her chance at human happiness and chooses to sacrifice her existence as a water nymph rather than hurt her beloved. But he too is doomed; driven to despair over his romantic predicament, he comes to her pond in a mad effort to find her - but he finds only the will-o'-the-wisp she has become. She takes him into the water with her and ends his life with a kiss.
The Twilight of Romanticism
When Rusalka was created, now a hundred years ago, it was an exciting time to be a composer. All over Europe, musicians were rejecting archaic rules and outdated forms and inventing any number of new systems. And the public for serious music was both huge and passionately involved in all the controversy. They were classicists, or Wagnerites, or modernists, or devotees of impressionism, of exoticism, of decadence. Dvorák's Rusalka, popular and accessible opera that it is, revels in the dangerous delights of late Romanticism, that final exhalation of nineteenth-century art's most pungent flower. Some of the late-Romantic elements of the opera:
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the union of love and death became the most popular kind of opera finale. The great master of the Liebestod (or love-death) was the German composer Richard Wagner, who ends at least half of his operas with doomed lovers rejoicing in an experience that is sexual and fatal at the same time. Perhaps the lovers will henceforth be always together in an afterlife; perhaps there will be nothing more, just this big bang at the end. The lovedeath makes such a thrilling final curtain composers all over Europe started using it, and Dvorák is no exception. He and his librettist close their Rusalka with the tormented Prince dying through the loving kiss of the girl who has destroyed herself for his sake.
Nineteenth-century Europe watched the disintegration of several obsolete empires and the rise of plenty of new nation-states. Music and literature played important roles in the formation of new national identities, as Romantic intellectuals began, for the first time, to study and write down fairy-tales and folk songs, the cultural heritage of the (local) common man. The homeland of Antonin Dvorák was Bohemia, then, but not for much longer, a part of the Hapsburg Empire. All of Dvorák's music breathes with love for Bohemia, and Rusalka, his version of a familiar old fairy-tale, is set unmistakably in the forests, swamps, and castles of what is today the Czech Republic.
Lush emotional music
Across the course of the nineteenth century orchestras became bigger and bigger, and composers grew more and more clever at manipulating bigger sounds and bigger voices to create bigger and more immediate emotional responses in the listener. Fans of earlier music may reject the indulgent emotionalism of late Romantic music; but box office statistics show that large audiences adore this kind of music, especially the work of late Romantics such as Dvorák and Tchaikovsky. Dvorák's score for Rusalka is late Romanticism at its best. Gorgeous, sweeping lyricism for the singers and their characters' emotional outbursts rides the waves of a great ocean of orchestral melody which accurately delineates two different worlds: the magical gloom of the haunted forest and the bright panoply of the Prince's court. Keep your ears peeled in particular for the opera's most famous number, the unbearably beautiful "Song to the Moon" Rusalka sings in the first act.