Rusalka is an opera by Antonín Dvořák. The Czech libretto was written by the poet Jaroslav Kvapil (1868-1950) based on the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben and Božena Němcová. The opera was first performed in Prague on 31 March 1901.
(A rusalka is a water spirit of Slavic mythology, usually inhabiting a lake or river.)
Kvapil's libretto based on Erben and Božena Němcová's work was written before he had any contact with the composer. The plot contains elements which also appear in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and in Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The libretto was completed by 1899, when Kvapil began looking for interested composers. His composer friends were engaged on other projects, but mentioned that Dvořák was looking for a project. The composer, always interested in Erben's stories, read the libretto and composed his opera quite rapidly, with the first draft begun on 22 April 1900 and completed by the end of November. After its premiere the next year, it became an enormous success in Czech lands, though less so elsewhere.
Rusalka's "Song to the Moon" ("Píseň Rusalky: Ó Měsíčku" or "Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém") is the opera's best-known aria.
The opera is in three acts:
Act I (a meadow by the edge of a lake): Three wood-sprites tease the Water-Goblin, ruler of the lake. Rusalka, the Water-Goblin's daughter, tells her father she has fallen in love with a human Prince who comes to swim in the lake, and she wants to become human to embrace him. He tells her it is a bad idea but nonetheless steers her to a witch, Ježibaba, for assistance. Rusalka sings her Song to the Moon, asking it to tell the Prince of her love. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she becomes human and is betrayed by the prince, both she and the prince will be eternally damned, and that Rusalka will lose the power of speech when human. Rusalka agrees to the terms and drinks a potion. The Prince, hunting a white doe, finds Rusalka, embraces her, and leads her away, as the Water-Goblin and her sisters lament.
Act II (the garden of the Prince's castle): A Gamekeeper and his nephew, the Kitchen-Boy, note that the Prince is to be married to a mute and nameless bride, suspecting witchcraft and doubting it will last, as the prince is already lavishing attentions on a Foreign Princess who is a wedding guest. The Foreign Princess, jealous, curses the couple. The prince rejects Rusalka. The Water-Goblin takes Rusalka back to his pond. The Foreign Princess, having successfully won the Prince's affection, now scorns it.
Act III (a meadow by the edge of a lake): Rusalka asks Ježibaba for a solution to her woes and is told she can save herself if she kills the Prince with the dagger she is given. Rusalka rejects this, throwing the dagger into the lake. Rusalka becomes a bludička, a spirit of death living in the depths of the lake, emerging only to lure humans to their deaths. The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy consult Ježibaba about the Prince, whom they say has been betrayed by Rusalka. The Water-Goblin says that the Prince betrayed Rusalka. The wood-sprites mourn Rusalka's plight. The Prince, searching for his white doe, comes to the lake, senses Rusalka, and calls for her. He asks her to kiss him, even knowing her kiss means death and damnation. They kiss and he dies; and the Water-Goblin comments that "All sacrifices are futile". Rusalka thanks the Prince for letting her experience human love, commends his soul to God, and returns to her place in the depths of the lake as a demon of death.