Antonin Dvorak: Rusalka (1901)

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.

COMMENTS:

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.

13 thoughts on “Antonin Dvorak: Rusalka (1901)

  1. Great review as always Phil, I’ve been reading your blog for over a year now and you are always full of insights. Also thanks to you I’ve listened to several operas I never new existed.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Dvorak’s Rusalka and Dmitrij, both favourites of mine. It’s about time the former gets the recognition it deserves.(it’s only taken 100 years or so!)Please make sure now you review the final mature Dvorak opera: ”The Devil and Kate”, he’s second most popular work in his homeland.

    Interesting factiod: Dvorak loved Tannhauser the most and thought it Wagner’s greatest work.

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    1. I can see why Dvorak thought Tannhauser was the best Wagner opera, it is his most medieval!

      I have seen The Devil and Kate, it is rather amiss of me to have not reviewed it already. Perhaps given this anniversary month I can fit it in since I only have one other opera scheduled for this month. Thanks for the message and the request!

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  2. Really not a fan of Rusalka. There’s some luscious music – the Song to the Moon, the wood nymphs’ dance (shades of Mendelssohn), the Prince’s aria in Act I, the Act III duet, Rusalka’s final aria.

    But I’m not fond of the ending, though – one of the most downbeat in all opera. Eternal damnation? What a delightful invention!

    The Met production implied that the Prince goes to heaven (presumably), but Rusalka remains damned. Can’t be much of a life being an undead creature at the bottom of a lake drowning passers-by.

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    1. You talk a lot about social justice; I don’t think there’s any way I, as a humanist, can justify the ending of Rusalka. It’s repellent, based on one of the most repellent parts of the Christian myth.

      It’s also very much of its time; if the 18th century is the age of the Enlightenment, the 19th century too often seems a decline into religion, nationalism, and feelings.

      The 18th century gives us operas about Classical gods, heroes, and historical figures, with a lieto fine based on reason and principle; French grand opera is about historical processes … Mid-century, we have Wagner’s psychodramas about sin, guilt, salvation, and damnation OR emotional solipsism (with plenty of German jingoism and anti-Semitism)… Partly as a reaction, and partly under the baleful influence of naturalism, by the turn of the 20th century, operas are utter dreck like Eugene Onegin, Werther, and La bohème.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you, but my specialization is in fact 19th century nationalism, feelings, and to a lesser extent religion (my thesis is about nationalism, in one word!), so better me to tackle the utter romantic dreck than you. I think it is great that our blogs talk about totally different periods, otherwise we would be rival bloggers as opposed to two opera bloggers with totally different agendas as we currently are. I play up to feelings with my reviews by giving my personal opinions on various operas. My feelings are subjective. Your blog is far more objective and enlightened. When something is a piece of romantic dreck, you call it a piece of romantic dreck.

        My SJW angle was an attempt at trying to highlight the depiction of injustice in operatic plots, if I need to abort the concept I will, but at the time I thought I would give it a go since it might demonstrate how some far out there operas have plots that are relevant to today. Others, like the gothic fairy tale that is Rusalka, do not, but I have to review them because I review everything, especially by a major 19th century composer like Dvorak.

        I never said I liked the plot of Lohengrin, just the music. I demoted it to a beta because the plot is the definition of stupidity even if it is the best thing Wagner ever wrote. I agree with you completely on Wagner, his stories are jingoistic romantic dreck with various shades of veiled anti-Semitism. His music got worse as time went on to the point that I would claim, unlike you, that Parsifal is musty and mildewy. Gotterdammerung is a three hour bore fest until act three even if it has a functional plot. Siegfried is dull, Walkure is only popular because everyone is so infatuated with that Ride thing, and Rheingold demonstrates that Wagner had no clue how to devise a stage drama. Don’t even get me started on Tristan or Meistersinger because I have already panned both.

        The best way of looking at Rusalka is as a fairy-tale. A horribly depressing one that requires one puts aside all rational thought and basks at its musical brilliance, but a fairy-tale nevertheless. Even I am uneasy with the ending, I think that is obvious from both my intro and concluding comments. Musically, however, it is defiantly the best opera Dvorak wrote with only some lulls like the act one transformation scene (which is disturbingly creepy) and the mild scenes involving the cook and the gamekeeper which come off more as filler. Rusalka herself is the best characterization Dvorak ever drew, even if I do love Dimitri and Xenia a little bit more. Dvorak provides beautiful music to a scene that really does not deserve it, but it is still beautiful music. It is stunning, but not very good.

        The concept of eternal damnation does not actually have its origin in Christianity, but rather in Egyptian and Zoroastrian concepts of the afterlife, in the latter known as the Frashokereti or Last Judgement concept. Judaism originally had no concept of an afterlife at all, and there is no indication of it in the Torah. It is true, however, that Christianity ultimately popularized the concept, probably as an impetuous to convert, but based on some sort of apocalyptic belief that was going around (but was not universal) among first-century Jews.

        I am first and foremost an historian of identity formation (my thesis is about how four different peoples interpret one war), partially because I don’t have a solid identity apart from the legal fact that I was born in the United States. The concept of identity fascinates me, particularly its construction and development from various elements, that is why I know what I know. I have spent most of my life exploring other cultures, that was part of the reason for me starting this blog. I select elements from various cultures (cuisine, religion, clothing, literature, music) in order to construct my own unique global identity. Depending on the day I might cook up something originally Ethiopian, or Italian, Lebanese, Scottish, Indian, or Chinese, but always with my own unique interpretation. I take what I think are the best elements of various cultures and apply them to my own life. In my blog I explore one aspect of culture: opera.

        For more information read Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson (if you haven’t already). It changed my life in third year uni. It is the only piece of theory I give total credence to, and it exposes how dumb and constructed nationalism is. Human diversity and the ability to openly communicate and share that diversity globally, it to me the greatest privilege of being born today. If I want to make Atakilt Wat I can! Now if you excuse me I need to head down to the market to get some ingredients for a carrot cake I want to make.

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      2. Damme, that’s a long reply!

        I wasn’t knocking your SJW angle (a valid approach); my point was that from a humanist angle, some operas are as unpalatable to me as Turandot, for instance, is to you.

        Yes, the ideal is definitely to be a citizen of the world (if not the universe). The world, I think, is moving in the direction of a global society; hopefully it can also maintain its diversity of cultures. (You’ve doubtless seen those photos of Tuaregs with mobile phones?) Cultures are all fascinatingly different, but there’s generally some common ground, even if it’s only humanity. (Attenborough met a remote PNG tribe in the ’70s; they couldn’t speak each other’s language, and the cultures were totally dissimilar, but they communicated through smiles and gestures.)

        You can call opera’s tendency to exoticism “Orientalism” (Dvorak’s Armida), but it was also educational in an age when few people could travel. The 19th century opera-going public may not have travelled to Asia [or South America, or Africa], or met many actual Asians, but had a much better idea of, for instance, Indian history and mythology than most Westerners today. (And most of these operas also suggest that human nature is much the same around the globe.)

        There’s a sea change in the mid-19th century when opera (and literature) increasingly loses interest in the wider world. Suddenly the arts turn inward; they focus on the emotions and everyday life of ordinary people. Stories are less likely to make people wonder or think, and more likely to make them feel. (We’ve seen something similar in film and television, the popular medium of our age; they were much more *idea*-driven 40 or 50 years ago.) With that goes irrationality. “requires one to put aside rational thought…” Can we, though – and, more importantly, should we? If opera demands that we lose our reason to enjoy it, is it not dangerous? “The sleep of reason produces monsters…” It’s been argued that Nazism is the product of Romanticism, with their love of Wagner (the arch-Romantic), emotion over reason (it wasn’t the *content* of Hitler’s speeches that swayed his audience, but the way he made them feel, and lose their identities in a crowd), and national chauvinism?

        And, for all my complaints about nationalism, I acknowledge that national operas were important in defining countries – particularly small countries struggling for independence – Italy from Austria, Poland and Finland from Russia, Czechoslovakia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even the German unification. Where nationalism really becomes dangerous is when it excludes. We’re talking here, I suppose, about the difference between civic or liberal nationalism and chauvinistic nationalism. (Wagnerian nationalism is unquestionably chauvinistic, as Meistersinger makes clear.)

        Other random points:
        Oh, I know that the concept of “hell” exists outside Christianity – but it’s a bigger deal in Christianity (and Islam and, as you say, Zoroastrianism) than in other religions. Many modern / liberal Christians reject hell; how, they ask, can you imagine a god of love who also punishes eternally? (It is, though, a powerful weapon for theocracy – obey the religious elite, or you’ll suffer forever.) Does the concept of hell really apply to Egyptian mythology? The soul is weighed against the feather of Maat; sinners are eaten by the Soul Devourer, a hippo/crocodile/lion hybrid. It’s not so much eternal punishment as they’re barred from paradise with Osiris. Buddhism and Hinduism’s concept of hell is closer to Catholic purgatory; it’s certainly not eternal.

        You like Egyptian food; good man! There aren’t any African restaurants (or Korean, or Szechuan, or Filipino, or Burmese) where I live; we have four Chinese restaurants (all ’70s vintage), two Indian, and a Thai. I crave mao xue wang, or gomen!

        (For really exotic food – have you tried historical? There’s a terrific adaptation of Apicius’s Roman recipes for the modern kitchen.)

        I’ll check out Benedict Anderson’s book.

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      3. This is a good idea! I have been postponing Isis for years, so I will put it on my short list to do next month while I am hopefully waiting for my tribunal to go over my thesis, it will be three weeks of waiting so I can get a ton of reviews in then. I have several other projects, more Dvorak, including a request from another reader for The Devil and Kate, a Mercadante, maybe Antar. The Leoni opera is only 65 minutes, so I will try to make that my first June post since I am planning for D&K and an Irish opera (the latter already competed) for the remainder of the month.

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      4. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm? What’s that, my boy? Eh? What’s he talking about? Hmmmm?

        Dardanus was written in 1739; I am, as you know, working forward from Orfeo.

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      5. Ultimately, Rusalka is a fairy tale. It is no more humanistically justifiable than Hansel and Gretel or the original version of Sleeping Beauty. It just is what it is and you can accept it or reject it as you wish.

        If Dvorak had written terrible music for it, it would be a gamma.

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    2. I agree with you about the ending story-wise, I think that is obvious from my review because I literally say that she is now a death demon who can only lull men into drowning themselves forever, it is incredibly depressing. The music Dvorak provides for the scene though is beautiful, which is at least a little bit odd and the reason why I gave just the three-star rating for the entire 12 minute block.

      My personal opinion on Dvorak is that he couldn’t write love music to save his life. He comes closest in Dimitrij in the title characters duets with Xenia but it is always the weak element for him across the board from Vanda to Armida. That is while The Devil and Kate works (I am currently in pre-production on that review for later this month, but I have already heard it before) because it has no romantic sub-plot at all. I have also heard The Cunning Peasant, but was only impressed with some of the ballet music.

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      1. I know little Dvorak other than Rusalka – and the wonderful symphonies / symphonic poems / dances.

        You raise the question of beauty. Is beauty, in truth, sufficient? We are, after all, watching a scene where two characters are condemned to everlasting misery, pain, and torment. At least most Italian operas assume that the lovers will be reunited in paradise.
        (And, yes, I’m fully aware that you’ll criticise, say, Turandot on moral grounds, and I’ll defend it on aesthetic ones!)

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