Rusalka (opera)

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Work data
Title: Rusalka
Poster for the premiere in 1901 in Prague

Poster for the premiere in 1901 in Prague

Shape: Lyric fairy tale in three acts
Original language: Czech
Music: Antonín Dvořák
Libretto : Jaroslav Kvapil
Premiere: March 31, 1901
Place of premiere: National Theater , Prague
Playing time: approx. 2 ½ hours

Rusalka is the most successful opera of Antonín Dvořák . It was composed in 1900 based on a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil and was premiered on March 31, 1901 at the Prague National Theater under the direction of Karel Kovařovic . The libretto is on Slavic folk myths about the Rusalky ( water spirits , mermaids ) back, and is similar to the German tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque , Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid and the old French Melusinensage . The opera with the subtitle Lyric Fairy Tale is also known as the “Czech Undine”.


first act

At a night forest lake, three female forest creatures are teasing old Aquarius . He tries in vain to pull one of them into the water. The mermaid Rusalka confesses to her father that she wants to preserve a human soul that is not given to the aquatic beings. Her father is horrified and warns her about the human world before he dives back to the bottom of the lake. Rusalka's deep longing for love is expressed in the song to the moon . The lake gets colder as the moon disappears and the witch Jezibaba appears. She mockingly grants Rusalka her desperate wish and turns her fishtail into two legs, but takes away her speech. On the hunt for a white deer, the prince lost his way and finally finds himself on the shore of the lake. Here he meets the silent, helpless Rusalka. He takes her, already in love with her, to his castle.

Second act

Shortly before the wedding, all of the guests gathered in the castle. The silence and peculiarity of Rusalka triggers subliminal astonishment. As a water creature, Rusalka was not made for love and cannot reciprocate the prince's feelings in the desired way. A foreign princess seduces the prince. When Rusalka realizes the prince's infidelity, her heart breaks. She longs to return to her water world. Aquarius appears and takes them back. The prince is shocked to discover that the person he originally loved is not a human being. The strange princess laughs uproariously at her triumph, her love was only coquetry and seduction without a background.

Third act

Růžena Maturová as the first Rusalka in the world premiere in 1901

Rusalka can no longer be a water creature after being enchanted. She is excluded from the circle of her sisters and from then on has to wander around as a deadly will-o'-the-wisp. A cook and a kitchen boy approach the witch Jezibaba and ask for an antidote for her prince, who has been bewitched by a mute woman. You will be chased away. The prince himself appears ruefully at the lake and asks Rusalka for forgiveness. Rusalka, who still loves him, warns him that her kiss will kill him. The prince longs for her so much that he asks anyway. Rusalka kisses the prince, who then dies, and disappears into the forest.



The orchestral line-up for the opera includes the following instruments:

Musical conception

In contrast to the operas by ETA Hoffmann , Albert Lortzing and Dargomyschski ( Russalka ), which also deal with Undine material, Dvořák's opera is told from the perspective of the elemental spirits. Accordingly, the people in the two and a half hour work are only present about a third of the time. In the rest of the time, songs and scenes capture the fairytale atmosphere of the world of mermaids and witches, as well as Rusalka's problematic attempt at delimitation and the reactions of those around him. The leitmotif technique also helps here , which, in contrast to the later Wagner operas, uses just a few motifs. These are constantly varied and musically reflect the state of affairs and the mental state of the characters in ever new facets. The central leitmotif is Rusalka's eight-bar, song-like motif, which is graceful, mysterious, and sometimes expressive, pervading the entire opera from the overture on. "Rusalka leads it in all its variations, expressing their longing, joy and suffering and finally it turns into funeral music about a lost love." Aquarius, witch (magic), prince (hunt) and the mermaids or elves are through Leitmotifs characterize, while other motifs remain limited to the situation (Heger and kitchen boy, magic formula for the transformation). In his first five operas, Dvořák had already taken up Wagner's then fashionable leitmotif technique, without these works being successful. Thereupon he “freed himself from Wagner's aesthetic norms and brought out his own personal language. The music, its beauty, comprehensibility and eloquence is the leading, determining principle “from the sixth opera, with which he returned to the number opera and at the same time began to choose native subjects. It was only with his ninth opera Rusalka that Dvořák succeeded in creating an independent design principle with the connection of leitmotifs and song-like melodies, well-composed scenes and complete lyrical numbers and a lyricism that "brings out the poetic and nostalgic note of his music even more".

Due to the many songs and arias, the number opera still shimmers through, as well as a symphonic form due to the many instrumental passages that can be used. a. Expressing the speechlessness or dejection of Rusalka and the magic it emanates on the prince, but also creating transitions and capturing atmosphere in the scenes. Dvořák's ingenious idea was to give (stanza) songs to the fairy tale world and arias to the noble human world. The choirs of the mermaids and elves are just as song-like as the haunting lament of Aquarius in the second act. And before her transformation, Rusalka sings songs, then only arias - like the prince whom she tries to approach. From the human world, people of lower class such as hunters, hunters and kitchen boys also have verse songs in folk song tone , so that origin and music are clearly related to one another. The witch and the strange princess sing neither song nor aria, the latter because their role is too small, the former because of their ambivalent character (she helps Rusalka with the transformation, but shows her and the kitchen boy the malicious traits known from the fairy tales).


The opera's best known piece as Mondarie is actually a song, the two stanzas of which each consist of a gentle, longing A section and an expressive B section with appeal character and an octave jump at the beginning. The soft key of G flat major, the springy 3/8 time, the larghetto tempo , the accompaniment of the muted violins [with mute] in thirds and piano create a tender, intimate atmosphere in which Rusalka's nocturnal heart's desire can be articulated. According to the folk song system, the stanzas are laid out in four-bar units. In the A part of the first verse, however, only the first unit is actually sung in four bars, with the other units the singing ends after three bars, the fourth is instrumental and mostly repeats the final motif of the chant, which creates the longing in a fine, refined way Rusalkas expresses it after a human soul. The second stanza is slightly varied in both parts to create even more intensity. At the end of each stanza, the hard, sounding over five bars, the symmetry and delicacy of the previous magic motif appears as a caesura and ominous foreshadowing. The 13-bar (!) Coda (predictive misfortune!) Increases Rusalka's delusional imagination and the appeal to the moon with a more short-winded two -bar period and, above all, in the orchestra with the constant change of its leitmotif with the magic motif, until this finally prevails and led to the summoning of the witch who, according to doubts and conditions, finally undertakes the transformation. With the moon song dramatically ending exposure , and with the appearance of the witch starts rising action. After the prince cast Rusalka out in the second act due to her silence and coldness as well as under the influence of the scheming, spiteful princess, it takes her a long time to free herself from her despair. Only towards the end of the act does she find the language again in relation to Aquarius, to whom she complains of her misery and articulates her anger and sadness in the aria of despair (G minor, 4/4, allegro appassionato, forte ). In the A part of the Da Capo aria, the short-winded melodies, jumps in tone and the massive sforzati show the painful realization that “you are only half a child”. In the G major middle section, which is outwardly more restrained, but articulates the inner unrest in grounding triplets, Rusalka compares herself with the princess, who has fire and embers while she was born in the cool waters and does not break through her peculiarity of cooling can. The shortened da capo and above all the long coda full of desperate exclamations increase her hopeless realization that she is “not a woman nor a nymph” to the highest level of suffering.

In her aria at the beginning of the third act (F major, 6/8, larghetto, piano, dolente ), Rusalka has become an insubstantial “will- o'-the-wisp ”, as Aquarius prophesies in the middle of the second act. Key, measure, tempo, volume and the re-used mordant violins in thirds show a striking similarity to the moon song. But the almost continuous one-bar ostinato and “the harmonies that continually change boundaries” make Rusalka's resignation and depersonalization palpable. The structure also supports this description of the state: The aria is made up of five parts, with the B part bringing the text of the A part again with a different melody (loss of identity) and the D part articulating Rusalka's death wish. The resumption of the A section underlines Rusalka's hopelessness in an emotionally very moving way.

In the center of the second act and thus the opera is the cantable, beautifully sonorous song of Aquarius, who laments the failure of Rusalka as a fact with no way out (E minor, 6/8, moderato afflitto [ sadly ], sotto voce ). According to the dramaturgical joint, the first stanza summarizes the previous (despite human love the cold mermaid blood continues to flow in it), the second stanza anticipates the further development (after her return Rusalka will be a fatal will-o'-the-wisp). A recitative woe-cry introduces and ends the two stanzas and separates them as a caesura. Musically, the stanzas consist of an A part (E minor, then E major) and a B part (D flat major), which repeats the text of the E major part. The soft melody of the A section, consisting only of steps, is enhanced in the B section by pitch, accompaniment and instrumentation. In both parts, playing the clarinet and flute colla parte helps to increase the melancholy and urgency. Dvořák modulates the transition from the verse to the woe call with a harmonious refinement, the quintuple sequence . This walk through the keys, which returns to the starting point, makes clear the helplessness of Aquarius, who then only has the cry of woe.

Also interesting in terms of composition is the performance song by the Hegers (forester) and kitchen boys at the beginning of the second act. It's a polka and each of the five stanzas is a variation . In addition, a report from the kitchen boy and a warning from the keeper are integrated into the song. The former reports to the keeper (and thus the audience) that the prince was enchanted by a mermaid (tremolo, strongly modulating harmonics, leitmotifs of Rusalka and the prince) and that this liaison at court arouses consternation and rejection. The Heger warns of forest, ponds, witch and water man (tempo and key changes, short-winded, formulaic melodies, colla parte , coordinated violins, ppp ).

While the prince's dream aria at the end of the first act is more conventional, the aria before it, when the prince senses what the magic of Rusalka and his longing love for her are doing to him, is characterized by a high instrumental part that is more than halfway through the aria takes and gives expression to the - in the literal sense - unspeakable feeling. The prince's search for Rusalka in the third act is similar. With one exception, the prince only appears at the end of the nudes, in which the music shows that he has fallen in love and that Rusalka has completely fallen for it. While in the first act he is monologically preoccupied with himself in the two arias and in the third act in a duet with Rusalka asks for the kiss of death and thus for redemption, at the end of the second act he textually confesses his love to the princess after he has cast off Rusalka. The kind of enthusiastic music makes it clear to the audience and the princess that Rusalka's magic continues and that the princess is not the actual addressee of the declaration of love. When she realizes this, she in turn casts out the prince. The first appearance of the princess is also dramaturgically and musically interesting: while the prince sings his love aria in the first third of the second act, deeply in love and equally irritated by Rusalka's coolness and muteness, the princess bursts into his song like an evil fairy and destroys it thus the conclusion. The prince continues to sing, but her dialogical interjections show how unreal the prince is and how malicious the princess is against him.


Along with Bedřich Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Rusalka is the most famous Czech opera. The opera Rusalka occupies a prominent place in the development of Czech dramatic music. It was premiered on March 31, 1901 at the National Theater in Prague and is now an integral part of the operatic repertoire of all Czech opera stages, as well as in other Slavic countries ( former Yugoslavia , Poland, Russia). The opera is also enjoying increasing interest in Germany, Belgium, England and America.

In Germany, the opera is now mostly performed in the original Czech language again.

Total recordings


Web links

Commons : Rusalka  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Ivan Vojtěch: Rusalka. In: Piper's Encyclopedia of Musical Theater. Volume 2: Works. Donizetti - Henze. Piper, Munich / Zurich 1987, ISBN 3-492-02412-2 , p. 101.
  2. a b Ladislav Sip: Booklet commentary on the recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Neumann 1982/83 - Supraphon 10 3641-2
  3. Schreiber: The art of opera. 1991