Opera in three acts. Running Time: Generally something around 2 hours 30 minutes.
Warning: It has taken me a very long time, perhaps too long, to review this opera, partially because I find the storyline very dark and disturbing. It isn’t that it isn’t a masterpiece: the music is breathtaking, but it is, at least in my opinion, as terrifying as the prospect of a two and half hour long episode of The Twilight Zone.
SETTING: A mythic kingdom of vaguely Czech origin, time unspecified. The plot is profoundly disturbing even if it is familiar: a water nymph, Rusalka (soprano) wants to become human because of her love for an unnamed Prince (tenor). Her father, Vodnik (bass) warns her against pursuing her desires but she goes to the frightful Jezhibaba (mezzo-soprano), grows a pair and gets the Prince to marry her all while being mute. But he soon gets buyers remorse and falls for a foreign princess (soprano, also unnamed because why not) who frankly doesn’t get enough stage time. Eventually, Rusalka is told that she must kill the Prince in order to redeem her own soul, otherwise she will become a water demon. Ironically this is far closer to the Hans Christian Andersen original than Disney would ever have been able to get away with.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: By a lake. (54 minutes)
0: The prelude ** starts with a leitmotif from the lower strings representing damnation (I am NOT joking). Ironically it eventually flowers into a gorgeous (and rather mid-19th century sounding) mini-climax before the damnation motif returns. There is a small leitmotif system here: for Rusalka (the second to appear), her damnation, Vodnik, the forest, and I think for the Prince and the Foreign Princess as well. This, along with the rich orchestration, gives the opera an overall Wagnerian sound.
4: Hou, hou, hou! A trio of water sprites ** (with chorus of assorted female sprites) comes on and dance about for some time very effectively before they are disturbed by Vodnik who they then tease with a second go at their number.
17: Sem často přichází Rusalka arrives and discusses what makes her sad (not being human while in love with a human) with Vodnik who warns her that what she wants is very dangerous, both for her and the human man she loves, but nevertheless advises her (after much passionate pleading **) to seek out the witch Jezhibaba before disappearing into the depths of the lake.
21: Měsíčku no nebi hlubokém Rusalka calls upon the moon to tell the Prince of her love ***. It keeps getting subtly interrupted by the damnation motif, which leads to her calling upon Jezhibaba, and Vodnik is heard in the distance crying out in fear.
29: Ježibabo, pomoz, pomoz! Jezhibaba arrives and engages Rusalka in a maddening dialogue which eventually prompts her to make her imploring pitch for help **. Jezhibaba then goes over the ground rules: namely that she will lose her ability to speak, at least to humans.
37: Čury mury fuk The transformation sequence * is creepy (the orchestra explodes) and Jezhibaba goes into a long monologue (several references to damnation and to the water sprites from earlier). Vodnik is eventually heard in the distance again mourning Rusalka and her fate.
43: Ustaňte v lovu The off-stage song of the Hunter start to reign us in but it is only with the arrival of the Prince ** that things return to normal. He calls away his men (references to both Rusalka and the forest here).
48: Vidino divná Suddenly there is a beautiful orchestral passage as Rusalka appears and allows herself to be found by the Prince prompting a one-sided love duet *** that goes on for the better part of six minutes. This gets broken up by the calls of the Water Sprites searching frantically for Rusalka and Vodnik who calls for her as well, causing her to temporarily despair. Eventually the Prince gets the last lines and takes her away with him.
ACT 2: A hall in the castle of the Prince. (45 minutes)
1: Jářku, jářku The act opens with an eight-minute long conversation * about the new princess (Rusalka) between the Cook and the Gameskeeper, who think that the Prince is under some sort of black magic (although they hint that already he is pursuing a foreign princess who is among the wedding guests). A good dark-comic filler scene with enough dramatic tension from the orchestra to sustain it.
10: Již týden dlíš The Prince and Rusalka come on in pantomime at first before he finally speaks **. After a long but lyrical time of this the Foreign Princess comes on to describe her motivation-less desire to destroy their relationship before aggressively flirting with the Prince (who is uncomfortably open to her overtures much to the silent protestations of Rusalka). Eventually they leave to allow her to reflect mutely on how messed up her experiment at being human has become.
19: After a long interlude, the ballet **, surprisingly not as long as one would think (or hope!). It has one solid tune, but does bog down a little in the middle.
23: Celý svět nedá Vodnik arrives searching for Rusalka **. This is followed by a mild bridal procession chorus with which Vodnik somehow ends up being musically entwined.
32: Vodníku, tatíčku drahý! Rusalka finally speaks again since she can communicate with Vodnik **. She regrets everything, the Prince has already betrayed her with the foreign princess, and wants to go back to the lake with him.
34: Ó marno, marno Rusalka goes into her accounting of what has happened ***. Eventually the Prince and the Foreign Princess return (first appearance of Foreign Princess leitmotif, which gets cut down by a surprise statement of Rusalka motif). The Prince declares his love for her (Prince motif) and then the Foreign Princess gets another go, this time in waltz time, to her motif.
44: V hlubinu pekla bezejmennou In the finale there are five interactions: first Rusalka breaks up an embrace between her husband and the Princess, then the Prince says she has a heart of ice and she silently flees, then Vodnik makes a terrible warning, the Prince realizes he is damned and begs the Princess to help him but she just tells him to go to Hell ***.
ACT 3: Same as Act 1. (50 minutes)
3: Mladosti své pozbavena Rusalka reflects on her former human life **. Jezhibaba arrives and tells her that the only way Rusalka can avoid becoming a bludichka (a death spirit) is by slaying the Prince with a specific dagger which she hands to her.
11: Jde z tebe hrůza After the longest bit of recitative in the opera Rusalka embarks on a glorious mini-aria of defiance ***. Jezhibaba eventually leaves and she goes into a second part before the chorus of Water Sprites go Rheingold on us and Rusalka is called by the demonic spirits and takes her place in the depths among them.
17: Že se bojíš? Another odd scene * for the Gameskeeper and the Cook as they seek out Jezhibaba to find some cure for the Prince. Vodnik is infuriated by them when they claim that it was Rusalka who left the Prince when all know that it was
25: Mám, zlaté vlásky mám Another charming number from the trio of water sprites ** ending with a jolly march before getting cut off by the mournful Vodnik.
36: Tady lo bylo! The Prince arrives searching for a lost doe and senses the presence of Rusalka. It is rather stop-go at first, but it builds to a very satisfactory climax **.
38: Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš? The long finale duet *** starts with the arrival of Rusalka the death demon. The Prince begs her to kiss him, knowing that it will kill him and damn his soul for all eternity. She does, he dies, Vodnik declares his sacrifice to be futile, and then Rusalka goes into Salome mode and commends the soul of the Prince to God and thanks him for allowing her to experience human love before returning to the watery depths to spent the rest of eternity luring men to their watery graves. Dvorak tries to pull off a redemptive sounding end here, but we all know what is in store of our title character.
Even more so than Le roi Arthus, this is the opera Wagner never wrote. The score is a combination of techniques from Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and the typical Dvorak Slavic idiom, here in its final and consummate form. The orchestration is gorgeous and lush, either gentle or fierce when required by the story, although the dance numbers have a certain joviality and elegance to them. Although through-composed, discernible arias and ensemble numbers are easily recognizable, giving this early-20th century work a mid-19th century feel. The depiction of Rusalka, a non-human being who decides to take up human life for the sake of love only to regret and despair of her choice, is wonderfully captured by Dvorak, and sympathy is squarely with her from beginning to end. She may not be a human being, but that is exactly why she is so sympathetic, because all the humans in this opera are either cynical or untrustworthy and this ultimately being a fairy-tale, that is probably the point! The non-humans, apart from the decidedly unlikeable Jezhibaba, are all sympathetic with the water sprite trio being distant cousins of the Rheinmaidens and Vodnik being, well Vodnik. Apart from the Transformation sequence, it is in the third act that the plot takes an incredibly dark turn. In act two it is true that Rusalka is suffering as a result of the Prince and his betrayal, but her reactions are innocent and human. In act three her fate is becoming a demonic supernatural being bent on homicide for all eternity. Unlike in Wagner, and perhaps why the story never attracted him, there is no redemption for anyone: Rusalka is left a death demon of the depths, the Prince dies and his soul damned forever in spite of Rusalka giving divine commendation, Vodnik even declares that all sacrifices are futile. Dvorak uses a Wagnerian redemptive type ending, but its use is ironic rather than definitive.
My one pressing question has always been since the first time I heard this opera ten years ago: what is the backstory on the Foreign Princess? Is she really a human princess, or some sort of supernatural agent sent to tempt the Prince, sort of like the Jewish Satan?
In any case, an alpha.