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Antonin Dvorak


Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka

Rusalka, Op. 114, is an opera ('lyric fairy tale') by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). The Czech libretto was written by the poet Jaroslav Kvapil (1868–1950) based on the fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. A rusalka is a water sprite from Slavic mythology, usually inhabiting a lake or river. Rusalka is one of the most successful Czech operas, and represents a cornerstone of the repertoire of Czech opera houses.

Dvořák had played viola for many years in pit orchestras in Prague (Estates Theatre from 1857 until 1859 while a student, then from 1862 until 1871 at the Provisional Theatre). He thus had direct experience of a wide range of operas by Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Lortzing, Verdi, Wagner and Smetana. Rusalka was the ninth opera Dvořák composed.

For many years unfamiliarity with Dvořák's operas outside the Czech lands helped reinforce a perception that composition of operas was a marginal activity, and that despite the beauty of its melodies and orchestral timbres Rusalka was not a central part of his output or of international lyric theatre. In recent years it has been performed more regularly by major opera companies. In the five seasons from 2008 to 2013 it was performed by opera companies worldwide far more than all of Dvořák's other operas combined.

The most popular excerpt from Rusalka is the "Song to the Moon" ("Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém") from act 1, which is often performed in concert and recorded separately. It has also been arranged for violin and used on film sound tracks.

Kvapil's libretto, based on Erben's and Božena Němcová's work, was written before he had any contact with the composer. The plot contains elements which also appear in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and in Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and has been described as a "sad, modern fairy tale", in a similar vein to his previous play, Princessa Pampeliška. The libretto was completed by 1899, when Kvapil began looking for composers interested in setting his text. His composer friends were engaged with other works, but mentioned that Dvořák was looking for a project. The composer, always interested in Erben's stories, read the libretto and composed his opera quite rapidly, with the first draft begun on 22 April 1900 and completed by the end of November. Coming after his four symphonic poems inspired by the folk-ballads of Erben of 1896–97, Rusalka may be viewed as the culmination of Dvořák's exploration of a "wide variety of drama-creating musical techniques".



Opera by Antonín Dvořák.
Libretto  by the poet Jaroslav Kvapil
based on the fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová.


Rusalka, a water nymph    -soprano
The prince    -tenor
Vodník, the water goblin    -bass
The foreign princess    -soprano
Ježibaba, a witch    -mezzo-soprano 
First wood sprite    -soprano
Second wood sprite    -soprano
Third wood sprite    -contralto
Gamekeeper    -tenor
Turnspit/Kitchen boy    -soprano
Hunter    -baritone
Chorus: Wood nymphs, guests at the castle,
entourage of the Prince.


Premiere cast, 31 March 1901 in Prague



Soprano. A water sprite, daughter of the Spirit of the Lake. Becomes human in order to marry a Prince. When they break the conditions imposed on them by the Witch Ježibaba, the Prince dies and Rusalka returns to the lake. Aria: Mésičku na nebi hlubokém (‘O moon in the velvet heavens’, often sung in English as ‘O silver moon’).
Created ( 1901 ) by Růžena Maturová.

Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka, op. 114 
Gabriela Beňačková (Rusalka)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted Václav Neumann, 1981


Tenor. Marries the water‐sprite, Rusalka, but they both break the conditions under which they were allowed to marry. He dies and she returns to the lake. Created ( 1901 ) by Bohumil Pták.


(Water Goblin). Bass. He warns Rusalka not to agree to the conditions imposed on her by the witch in return for allowing her to become human and marry the prince. The Water Goblin is sure it will lead to disaster—and he is proved right. Created (1901) by Václav Kliment.

Foreign Princess:
Soprano. Jealous of her rival, she reveals Rusalka's origins to the Prince, thus causing his death when Rusalka breaks her vow and speaks to him. Created (1901) by Marie Kubátová.

Mezzo-soprano. The Witch who grants mortality to Rusalka, but on condition that she remains dumb, otherwise she will die. Created (1901) by Růžena Bradáčová.



A meadow by the edge of a lake

Three wood-sprites tease the Water-Gnome, ruler of the lake. Rusalka, the Water-Nymph, tells her father she has fallen in love with a human Prince who comes to hunt around the lake, and she wants to become human to embrace him. He tells her it is a bad idea, but nonetheless steers her to a witch, Ježibaba, for assistance. Rusalka sings her "Song to the Moon", asking it to tell the Prince of her love. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that, if she becomes human, she will lose the power of speech and immortality; moreover, if she does not find love with the Prince, he will die and she will be eternally damned. Rusalka agrees to the terms and drinks a potion. The Prince, hunting a white doe, finds Rusalka, embraces her, and leads her away, as her father and sisters lament.


The garden of the Prince's castle

A Gamekeeper and his nephew, the Kitchen-Boy, note that the Prince is to be married to a mute and nameless bride. They suspect witchcraft and doubt it will last, as the Prince is already lavishing attentions on a Foreign Princess who is a wedding guest. The Foreign Princess, jealous, curses the couple. The prince rejects Rusalka. Rusalka then goes back to the lake with her father the Water Gnome. Though she has now won the Prince's affections, the Foreign Princess is disgusted by the Prince's fickleness and betrayal and she scorns him, telling him to follow his rejected bride to Hell.


A meadow by the edge of a lake

Rusalka asks Ježibaba for a solution to her woes and is told she can save herself if she kills the Prince with the dagger she is given. Rusalka rejects this, throwing the dagger into the lake. Rusalka becomes a bludička, a spirit of death living in the depths of the lake, emerging only to lure humans to their deaths. The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy consult Ježibaba about the Prince, who, they say, has been betrayed by Rusalka. The Water-Goblin says that it was actually the Prince that betrayed Rusalka. The wood-sprites mourn Rusalka's plight. The Prince, searching for his white doe, comes to the lake, senses Rusalka, and calls for her. He asks her to kiss him, even knowing her kiss means death and damnation. They kiss and he dies; and the Water-Goblin comments that "All sacrifices are futile." Rusalka thanks the Prince for letting her experience human love, commends his soul to God, and returns to her place in the depths of the lake as a demon of death.

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