Rusalka, Opera by A. Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák’s bittersweet opera, Rusalka, continues to draw audiences because it remains a compelling study of what it is to be human, as relevant today as when it was premiered in Prague in 1901.
The story of Dvořák’s eponymous water nymph may have many similarities with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, on which Jaroslav Kvapil based his libretto, but Rusalka is an altogether darker and sadder affair.
Rusalka has fallen in love with a prince and makes a deal with the witch Ježibaba so that she can leave her underwater domain to be with him. She is warned, should he spurn her, that death awaits them both. The seeds of the tragedy have been sown: the prince proves to be fickle, lavishing his attentions on another woman; Rusalka, because she resists Ježibaba’s command to kill him, is condemned to become a siren, beautiful yet deadly to anyone she kisses. And the prince can no longer resist her.
Dvořák’s music in Rusalka is astounding. Rusalka and the prince can touch each other’s hearts but they can never quite be together, and the clash that the composer sets up between the classical tradition of which he was a devoted student and a more Slavic national music of which he was such an important exponent, based on folk song and dance, work brilliantly to contrast the two worlds that separate the protagonists.
The Vienna State Opera, one of the world’s great opera houses, is the venue for this production of Rusalka. Architecturally, it is as beautiful as the works it stages, and many of its treasures offer tantalising visual echoes of the operas that have been performed there since it opened in 1869.