Rusalka, Opera by A. Dvořák
Rusalka, the penultimate and probably best loved of Antonín Dvořák’s ten operas, is a fairy tale, as enchanting as it is desperately sad; an ill-fated love affair which sees both the eponymous water nymph of the story and her prince engulfed in tragedy. Losing her voice, the price the witch Ježibaba insists upon for making her human, causes the prince to doubt Rusalka’s love for him. Once he has realised his mistake, only a kiss from Rusalka will release him from his torment, but her embrace will also result in his death.
This opera was written specifically for the National Theatre, symbol of a burgeoning national consciousness. The opera saw its premiere there in 1901 and the National Theatre is also where it will be performed this season. In terms of the music, Dvořák skilfully blends folklore and folk songs together with sumptuous leitmotifs imbued with his substantial knowledge of the western operatic tradition to achieve that rare combination of a piece that is both universal in its themes yet proudly Czech in character.
Rusalka clearly shows the influence on Dvořák of both his compatriot, Smetana, and the German giant of the operatic tradition, Wagner; both had been directors of the Provisional Theatre where Dvořák played viola in the pit. The outcome is an opera which is rich in harmonics but also infused with a very special Slavic melancholy in its narrative, use of dance and its music.
The beauty of Dvořák’s composition is typified by the opera’s standout aria, “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” in which Rusalka beseeches the moon to help her win the prince’s love. While Rusalka’s song is gloriously defiant, the tenderness of the orchestra’s accompaniment suggests the sadness that is to follow.