Photo by Jacob Lucas for Seattle Opera

Final Rusalka Thoughts

One question that spectators might ask about this opera is whether the affair between the Prince and Rusalka is ever consummated. While it is never stated outright, several clues point to a positive answer to this question. As indicated at the conclusion of Act I, the Prince covers her with his cloak and leads her into the woods, where they would have some privacy, rather than back to his castle. Second, the prince’s complaints about her lack of passion seem to refer to something more than kissing. She apparently was only superficially transformed into a human, but with her other-worldly mentality she does not experience sexual passion. Finally, the implication of a sexual relationship seems implied in her father’s anger at the Prince’s betrayal. Most likely a man who deserted a woman he had merely kissed would not arouse such anger, but by the sexual mores of the time (which still persist in some places), a man who took a woman’s virginity and refused to marry her was worthy of condemnation.

We have already discussed the theme of nationalism in Dvořák’s music. One aspect we have not made note of is the identity of Rusalka’s rival as a “foreign princess.” As a foreigner who seeks to displace a Czech woman, albeit a mermaid, she is immediately suspect.

Some critics have also made note of the “love/death” motif in the opera, a theme which figured prominently in the operas of Dvořák’s principal model, Richard Wagner. The purest form of the “Liebestod” (love/death) appears in the conclusion of Tristan and Isolde. What could be more romantic than dying for love, whether by suicide (Werther), a jealous lover (Pagliacci, Francesca di Rimini, and others), exposure to the elements (Manon Lescaut), or a lover’s kiss, as in Rusalka?

Finally, there is the question of whether this opera has a deeper meaning for us beyond mere enjoyment of the story and the music. As critic Fred Cohn notes, “The longing to be something other than oneself is built into the human condition.” Does the opera suggest that one should not seek out forbidden relationships? To see the opera as moralistic in this way is to miss the emotional impact of Dvořák’s music. John Simon has described the opera as expressing “the ultimate incompatibility of man and woman, the impossibility of love.” Again, this seems overly negative.

Some critics have found a feminist element in the story. This is not surprising. One of the defining differences between myths and fairy tales is that the former generally feature male protagonists whereas fairy tales feature female protagonists, though most of them are waiting for their Prince Charmings to rescue them. Consider how many Disney films feature princesses – the immensely successful Frozen being the most recent example.

John Simon points out that while the Prince dies a peaceful death and quite likely is saved by Rusalka’s forgiveness, Rusalka does not die but is condemned to live in a suspended state part of neither the aquatic or human community : “And this is the reward of female creature for having a greater love than that of the male….the incommensurability – or injustice – of love.” Katha Pollitt makes a stronger case for a feminist reading: “And from the female point of view? The feminist lesson is almost too obvious: Rusalka gives up her true self to win the love of a man….She silences herself at tremendous cost, only to find that her sacrifice makes her less appealing to the man she adores. Hers is the sad predicament of the good girl who tries too hard to become what she thinks men want.”

Beyond this, Ms. Pollitt sees a bigger picture: “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Rusalka is about passion itself, about that part of oneself that is hell-bent on pursuing its own path despite warnings that it will lead to disaster – because not to pursue it means sitting forever in a boring lake with your sisters or idling away your life as a generic fairy-tale prince. It’s about people’s need to make their destiny and make themselves, about the drive to transgress limits and challenge fate.” She goes on to speak of the isolation of the characters, pointing out the lack of great duets in the opera: “That solitude is the tragedy at the heart of Romanticism: the more tempestuous the passion, the more one is alone. By that standard, Rusalka may well be the most Romantic of all operas.”

Romanticism is characterized by people’s desire not to “play it safe.” Like Don Quixote, Romantic heroes and heroines are most admired when they “dream the impossible dream.” The cathartic effect of these works is our ability to sympathize with these dreamers and to feel elated by their ability take us out of our safe, ordinary lives.

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