Premiere: National Theater, Prague, 1901
The only opera by the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák that has (so far) gained an international following, Rusalka is in many ways a definitive example of late Romanticism. Folklore, evocations of the natural and the supernatural worlds, and even a poignant interpretation of the idea of a love-death are all contained in this very human fairy tale. The opera tells of a water nymph (the title character) who longs to become human so she can win the love of a prince. The story has a strong national flavor as well as universal appeal, infused by the Romantic supernaturalism of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine (previously set as an opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and others) and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The opera was written for the National Theater in Prague, an institution with a mission to develop Czech consciousness and patriotism during a time when the country was subjected to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The composer’s national consciousness, the folkloric ambience of the piece, and the fact that it’s written in Czech have all assured the opera’s popularity with the Czech public, for whom it is considered a national treasure.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was a Czech composer celebrated during his lifetime for his chamber, choral, and symphonic music. His many works to achieve international popularity include the String Quartet No. 12, “The American,” the Piano Trio No. 4, “Dumky,” the Requiem, the Slavonic Dances, the Cello Concerto, and nine published symphonies. Dvořák was especially popular in London and in New York, where he served for a while as director of the short-lived National Conservatory of Music. It was here that Dvořák experienced African-American and Native American music, some of which would influence his most successful composition, the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Yet he also composed nine operas, including Rusalka, and was puzzled that his success as a symphonic composer prevented him from being taken seriously as an opera composer beyond his native Bohemia. Jaroslav Kvapil (1868–1950) was a Czech author and poet. He wrote the libretto for Rusalka before meeting Dvořák, who became enthusiastic about the work when the director of the National Theater in Prague showed it to him.
The opera takes place in an unspecified fairy-tale setting. Contrasting unspoiled and “honest” nature (the woods and lake of the framing acts) with corrupt human culture (the Prince’s palace in Act II) was a favorite theme of Romantic artists.
The orchestral score of Rusalka is magically evocative, particularly for the passages depicting the forest and the lake in Acts I and III. The delicacy of these moments has led some critics to label Dvořák’s writing “impressionistic.” These scenes are effectively contrasted with the bright brass flourishes depicting the glittering court of the prince. The vocal writing is built around emotional outbursts riding waves of orchestral sound, notably in the final confrontation between the hero and heroine: rather than a standard duet with both characters singing at once, each of them sings straightforward phrases that capture the irreconcilable states of these estranged characters. As opposed to some of his contemporaries, Dvořák did not shy away from writing arias and set pieces where the flow of the drama warranted. Besides the soprano’s ravishing “Song to the Moon,” famous from concerts and recitals long before the rest of the opera was known outside of the Czech world, there is the mezzo’s humorous Act I solo and even a straightforward (though ironic) bridal chorus in Act II. Additional contrast, expressed in a folkloric style, is provided by the servants in Act II. These various strands—impressionist, stately, rustic—are interwoven throughout the opera to illustrate the many dimensions of the story.
Rusalka at the Met
Rusalka came to the Met in 1993, with John Fiore conducting the Slovak soprano Gabriela Beňačková in the title role and a cast that also included Neil Rosenshein, Janis Martin, Dolora Zajick, and Sergei Koptchak. Ben Heppner sang the Prince for five performances in that original run. Renée Fleming first took on the title role in 1997 and returned to it in 2004 and most recently in 2009, with Aleksandrs Antonekno making his Met debut as the Prince, Stephanie Blythe as Ježibaba, Christine Goerke as the Foreign Princess, and Jiří Bělohlávek conducting.