Dvořák’s Rusalka

Event: Dvořák’s Rusalka
Date: February 25, 2017, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Rusalkaper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Rusalkaper student • $11.00 online


Act I

A lake in the forest, in fairy-tale times. The water nymph Rusalka sits sadly by the water as wood nymphs sing and dance. When her father, the Water Sprite, asks why she is unhappy she replies that she fell in love with a human—the Prince—when he came to swim in the lake. Now she wants to become human herself and live on land to be with him. Horrified, the Water Sprite tells her that humans are evil and full of sin. When Rusalka insists, claiming they are full of love, he says she will have to get help from the witch Ježibaba, then sinks back into the lake in despair. Rusalka calls on the moon to tell the Prince of her love. Ježibaba arrives and agrees to turn Rusalka into a human—but warns her that if she doesn’t find love she will be damned and the man she loves will die. Also, by becoming mortal, she will lose her power of speech. Convinced that her feelings for the Prince can overcome all spells, Rusalka agrees and Ježibaba gives her a potion to drink. As dawn breaks, the Prince appears with a hunting party and finds Rusalka. Even though she won’t speak to him, he is captivated by her beauty and leads her away to his castle. From the lake, the voices of the Water Sprite and the other water nymphs are heard, mourning the loss of Rusalka.

Act II

At the Prince’s castle, the Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy talk about the approaching wedding of the Prince and his strange new bride, whose name nobody knows. The Prince enters with Rusalka. He wonders why she is so cold toward him but remains determined to win her. A Foreign Princess, who has come for the wedding, mocks Rusalka’s silence and reproaches the Prince for ignoring his guests. The Prince sends Rusalka away to dress for the ball and escorts the Princess into the castle for the beginning of the festivities.

The Water Sprite appears, looking for Rusalka, who is becoming more and more intimidated by her surroundings. suddenly recovering her voice, she begs him to help her, telling him that the Prince no longer loves her. The Prince enters with the Princess and confesses his love for her. When Rusalka intervenes, rushing into his arms, he rejects her. The Water Sprite warns the Prince of the fate that awaits him, then disappears with Rusalka. The Prince asks the Princess for help but she ridicules him and tells him to follow his bride into hell.


Rusalka has returned to the lake and laments her fate. Ježibaba mocks her, then hands her a knife and explains that there is a way to save herself: she must kill the Prince. Rusalka refuses, throwing the weapon into the water. When her sisters reject her as well, she sinks into the lake in despair. The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy arrive to ask Ježibaba for help. The Prince, they say, has been bewitched by a strange wood girl he was going to marry. Enraged, the Water Sprite rises from the lake, saying that it was the Prince who deceived Rusalka. Terrified by the supernatural sight, the two run away. The wood nymphs enter, singing and dancing, but when the Water Sprite explains to them what has happened to Rusalka, they fall silent and disappear.

The Prince, desperate and half crazy with remorse, emerges from the forest, looking for Rusalka and calling out for her to return to him. She appears from the water, reproaching him for his infidelity, and explains that now a kiss from her would kill him. Accepting his destiny, he asks her to kiss him to give him peace. She does, and he dies in her arms. Rusalka asks for mercy on his soul and disappears into the water.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

Tell him, oh tell him, my silver moon,
Mine are the arms that shall hold him,
That between waking and sleeping he may
Think of the love that enfolds him…

We don’t think of Dvořák as an opera composer. But he wrote ten operas, most of them rarely heard outside their native land. Rusalka is the exception, and that only in recent years. Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto derives from three sources, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, and Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell, all versions of the legend of a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal prince. She is known by various names, notably Ondine or Melusine.

If you’re familiar with the Disney version, forget it. In these stories the ending is seldom happy. They are about (in Andrew Porter’s words) “tragic incompatibility.” On the mortal level the paradigm is Romeo and Juliet. On the mythical level we have ballets on this theme (La Sylphide, Swan Lake) and operas (The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin, both by Wagner). The water nymph myth itself has been the subject of other operas, mostly by romantic-era German composers such as Lortzing and E.T.A. Hoffmann. According to Porter, “the myth provides creators with a frame for exploring man’s, and woman’s, desire for the elusive, the unattainable, the other.” Drew Minter sees in Rusalka’s plight “the contemporary paradigm of the silenced outsider” and suggests a parallel with “the Czech maidservants, lacking German skills, who waited on Viennese high society at the turn of the twentieth century.”

Dvořák composed Rusalka in eight idyllic months at his summer retreat at Vysoká next to what is now called “Rusalcino jezirko” (Rusalka’s little lake). It’s a mood piece. Atmosphere is more important than plot. The title character doesn’t get to sing at all in Act II. The colorful orchestration carries much of the work. Dvořák’s score, strongly influenced by Wagner, relies on leitmotifs, though they aren’t subjected to complex Wagnerian symphonic treatment. Speech rhythms shape the melodies, anticipating their more radical employment in the operas of Leoš Janáček. The music clearly differentiates between the mortal and supernatural worlds. The most famous number, Rusalka’s “Hymn to the Moon,” arrives early in the opera, but there’s much lovely music to follow. Dvořák always aims to please.