More than anything in the world, Rusalka, a mysterious and elusive water nymph, yearns to become human to win the heart of a young prince. But this metamorphosis comes at a price: she will lose her voice and be damned forever should their love story fail.
Rusalka, a lyrical fairy tale inspired by The Little Mermaid and Undine, is Dvořák’s penultimate work and one of his greatest successes. In Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s production, Norwegian director and choreographer Alan Lucien Øyen adds a new dimension to this masterpiece of the Czech repertoire by representing the main characters on stage twice: by a singer and a dancer. This doubling reinforces the opera’s deeply dreamlike nature. The impressive South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza embodies the character of Rusalka, while the Lithuanian conductor Giedré Šlekytė leads the orchestra with brio and intensity.
The Prince (dancer)
Vodník Water Goblin
Ježibaba, a witch
Maria Riccarda Wesseling
The Foreign Princess
First wood sprite
Annelies Van Gramberen
Second wood sprite
Third wood sprite
Wood sprites (dancers)
Morgana Cappellari, Lara Fransen, Laurine Muccioli, Júlia Pagès
Water nymphs (dancers)
Joseph Kudra, Robbie Moore, Shane Urton, Lateef Williams
Opera Ballet Vlaanderen Symphonic Orchestra
Alan Lucien Øyen
On the shore of a lake in the middle of the woods, three wood-sprites are teasing Vodník, the water goblin, with a game of catch-me-if-you-can. Each time, they evade his grasp. Rusalka, a water-nymph, is Vodník’s daughter. She is sad as she no longer feels at home in the water. She longs to escape and assume a human form, with a human soul, so that she could become visible to a prince she has seen hunting near the lake and thus be able to experience human love.
Rusalka asks her father for a solution. Despite her initial warnings, he takes her to see the witch, Ježibaba. Rusalka begs the witch to transform her. Ježibaba agrees, but in exchange, Rusalka will have to sacrifice her voice. Furthermore, Ježibaba’s help comes with a curse: if Rusalka fails to win the prince’s heart, she will be banished and condemned to wander between life and death as a spirit for all eternity. Her beloved prince will suffer damnation. Rusalka agrees to the terms.
Out hunting, on the trail of a white doe, the prince and the hunter come across Rusalka. The prince is instantly captivated. He brings her to his castle.
At the prince’s castle, preparations are underway for a ball. The kitchen boy tells the gamekeeper that the prince wants to marry a woman he brought back with him from the forest the week before. According to the kitchen boy, the prince has already fallen out of love with Rusalka.
The rumours circulating at court prove to be true: the prince no longer loves Rusalka. He is repulsed by her cold, clammy body and inexplicable silence. A foreign princess asks the prince to take better care of his guests. After the prince coldly tells Rusalka to ready herself for the ball, the prince and the princess go off together to join the other guests. Rusalka is left behind, alone.
While the guests dance and make merry at the ball, Vodník comes and laments Rusalka’s fate. In his presence, Rusalka regains her voice and complains of her suffering. The foreign princess has won the heart of the prince, who has rejected Rusalka. Vodník threatens him. He will never be able to escape her embrace. The princess, too, abandons the prince. Vodník escorts Rusalka back into the depths.
Back in the woods, on the shore of the lake, Rusalka laments her fate. Ježibaba appears before her and offers her a way out: if Rusalka kills the prince, she may return to the watery world. Rusalka refuses her offer as she would rather submit to her fate than to kill the man she loves. Rusalka is ostracised by the other water-nymphs.
The gamekeeper and the kitchen boy visit Ježibaba to ask her advice about the prince, who is wandering in despair. She laughs at them and they are frightened. When they blame Rusalka for the prince's state, the water goblin Vodník appears. He reminds them that it was actually the prince who abandoned her. Vodník swears revenge. The three wood-sprites begin to sing and dance. Vodník tells them that Rusalka is condemned to suffer and she has been banished by her sisters.
The prince is desperately searching for his exiled love. He repents and asks Rusalka for a kiss. She warns him that it will be fatal but the prince insists. After the kiss, he dies in her arms. Rusalka thanks the Prince for letting her experience human love and commends his soul to God. She then returns to her place in the depths of the lake as a bludička, a will-o’-the-wisp, a demon condemned never to live nor die that emerges only to lure humans to a watery grave.
The irrepressible longing for authenticity
Dramaturg Koen Bollen looks at historical depictions of female water spirits and asks director Alan Lucien Øyen if Rusalka is merely a magical extravaganza or a thoughtful parable about what it is to be human.
In Rusalka, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) created one of the most intriguing, multi-layered and musically brilliant works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Czech author and dramaturge Jaroslav Kvapil wrote the libretto inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the dark tale of Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, while also including elements from Die versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell) by Gerhart Hauptmann. Kvapil and Dvořák connected these Western European literary sources with the Slavic origin myths of the rusalki, female water spirits with a very particular history. The result was a deeply felt lyrical score with inventive orchestration that convincingly transforms the fairy-tale figures into complex characters in their own right.
The female water spirit has been inspiring myths, sagas and legends for thousands of years. Her elusive beauty and dark menace crops up over and over in countless works of literature and music. The Greek siren, the French melusine, the German undine and the Slavic rusalka are all variations on the enigmatic figure of the mermaid. Mermaids as we know them today appeared only in the Middle Ages. In Christian Europe, Odysseus became the prototype of the true Christian who was able to resist the tempting sirens. In 1590, in his Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, the German physician Paracelsus described the female water spirit as a creature lacking an immortal soul, but who can earn one through marriage to a human.
The nineteenth century was a golden age for stories about water spirits. The advent of modernity and the industrial revolution were accompanied by a counter-movement in the arts. In the Romantic period, fantasy and nature, and therefore also water spirits, once again became an important theme. The German writer Fouqué based his influential novella Undine (1811) on the tradition of the soulless water spirit as described by Paracelsus. Undine's father wants his daughter to marry a human and thus acquire a soul. Eventually the knight Huldbrand takes Undine to his castle where his love for her wanes in favour of another woman. According to the laws of nature, Undine must kill Huldbrand with a kiss.
Undine became one of the sources of inspiration for the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. He published his story of The Little Mermaid in 1837. She, too, yearns for the love of a man. In exchange for a human form, she relinquishes her voice to the Sea Witch. If she can win the love of her prince, she will gain a human soul. Her sacrifice proves to be in vain, however, and the only way to escape her fate of dissolving into sea foam is by killing the prince. Yet, she refuses. Andersen's fairy tale, and especially her refusal to kill the prince, reinvents the mermaid. While she was customarily portrayed as a passive object of male fantasies, Andersen gives her an active role. She is no longer a victim of natural and human forces. She acquires an individual will, an element that also occupies a central place in Dvořák’s Rusalka.
The most important sources for Kvapil’s and Dvořák's artistic treatment of the fairy tale can be found in the Western literary tradition, however both artists also took many elements from Slavic folk mythology. In popular belief, the rusalki were girls who had drowned themselves or were illegitimate – and therefore unbaptised – girls who had been killed by drowning. Those children thus became victims who were excluded from both the ecclesiastical and the pagan funeral rites and therefore, along with executed criminals and their like, belonged to the ‘unclean dead’. The most fundamental distinction between the Western tradition and this Eastern Slavic one is the human origin of the water spirit: a rusalka is not a soulless natural spirit but a lost human soul.
‘Rusalka is a fairy tale about nymphs, a mermaid, a water sprite, a witch, a prince and a princess,’ says Alan Lucien Øyen, who directs this new production at Opera Vlaanderen. ‘But it is also the story of a father who loses his daughter, of a girl who wants to give up everything for a sense of belonging, of a young man who is confused about what society expects of him and, finally, in the character of the witch, it is also a story of resentment and bitterness for a life that was never lived.’ The desire to bring out the realism in the fairy tale was the starting point for the Norwegian director and choreographer. For him, Rusalka is essentially about the clash between unfulfilled desires and inescapable reality. Impossible as it may be for the individual to avoid a predetermined destiny, we nevertheless all seek an authentic life.
In this production, various characters are played by both a singer and a dancer, who share the role. This offers Øyen a way of expressing the libretto very directly as well as revealing the underlying emotions and motivations of the characters. ‘This opera is a story about alienation, about feeling different,’ he explains. ‘Rusalka undergoes a profound transformation in order to be able to belong somewhere, but the result is that she feels more alienated than ever in her new life. She considers herself neither a water spirit nor a human and is increasingly lost and alone.’ Rusalka is a thoughtful tale about our desire to choose for ourselves a place where we can feel at home and live exactly as we have always wanted to. The fearless Rusalka shows us how we can take our lives into our own hands and tell our own story, even in the face of a destiny that seems inevitable.
This text is based on an article by Koen Bollen that first appeared in the programme book for Rusalka in December 2019.