Rusalka Plot Outline
The shore of a lake. The house of the witch is visible. Rusalka, a water sprite, is sitting in the branches of a willow tree.
Before beginning the narrative, we need to make an important point. While the most direct source for this opera is The Little Mermaid, Rusalka is not a mermaid but a water sprite (much to the relief of costume designers and of sopranos who realize that “flipping their fins, they don’t get too far.”)
A brief prelude introduces some of the major thematic music of the opera – themes associated with both Rusalka and the Prince. Three wood nymphs enter, singing a playful song about the moon. They jokingly explain that the Vodník may soon come to the surface, hoping to nab one of them as a wife – a wish they have no interest in granting. This situation, along with their chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho,” are clearly an allusion – a sort of tip of the hat – to Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, in particular the opening of Das Rhinegold and Alberich’s attempted seduction of the Rhine Maidens.
Since Vodník is unable to leave the water entirely, the Wood Nymphs realize that they can safely tease him from a distance. Seeing her father partially arise from the water, Rusalka approaches him and tells him of her desire to become human and to possess an immortal soul (a concept more fully developed in Andersen’s story). Vodník warns her of the downside of possessing a soul – souls are full of sin and sorrow – but she persists. She tells him that she has fallen in love with a human prince, but since she is only a spirit, he perceives her only as a wave (note the departure here from Andersen – and Disney). Realizing that he cannot win the argument, the Water Gnome tells her that the witch Ježibaba can help her. With a sigh of “woe,” he exits.
The sound of the harp introduces the opera’s most famous aria, Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon,” a haunting melody that must be on most opera lovers’ short list of favorite arias. Opera critic Fred Cohn has commented on this aria that “You could know nothing of the opera’s plot or of the Czech language, and still immediately understand that this is a song of longing and supplication.” He notes that the octave leap that begins the chorus is itself an expression of yearning. In this aria Rusalka begs the moon to bring her love to her.
Rusalka calls out to Jezibaba, who, after a dramatic orchestral interlude, emerges from her house, as we hear Vodník’s lament. Rusalka praises the witch’s powers and begs for her help. Ježibaba says that she has the power to help her, but she warns her of the consequences: once she has become human, she can never return to her previous life, and if the man she loves betrays her, both she and the object of her affection will be damned forever. Furthermore, she will be mute to all human beings and must win the Prince’s love without verbal communication. (In what again appears to be a departure from the Andersen/Disney version, here the loss of her voice seems to be a natural consequence of being transformed into a human, not a malevolent act of the witch). Rusalka is confident enough of the power of her love to accept the risks, and as the orchestra plays another extended instrumental passage, Ježibaba prepares the potion as she chants some mystic incantations (in what is essentially a comic aria), and she gives it to Rusalka to drink.
Immediately, Rusalka finds herself to be in human form. The first sound she hears is an offstage hunter singing a folk song about a man who shoots what he believes to be a dove, only to find that it was his beloved – a ballad perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences as “Polly Von.”
The Prince enters, saying that he has been enchanted by a vision he has seen. Rusalka approaches him, and he is immediately overwhelmed by her beauty. In a lyrical aria, he sings of his love but also expresses his doubt as to whether she is truly human or a creature from a fairytale. Rusalka tries to answer him but realizes that she has indeed lost her voice. Offstage, her fellow sea creatures notice that she is missing.
Despite the lack of verbal communication, the Prince is infatuated. He takes her under his cloak and leads her into the forest – possibly hinting at consummation – as the curtain falls.
One week later. The grounds of the Prince’s castle. In the background, we can see the ballroom. In the foreground there is a small fish pond.
The Prince and Rusalka enter. He is still puzzled by her silence, but he is even more frustrated by her lack of passion, which we know is a result of the fact that while Rusalka has a human body, she is not really human and apparently does not feel human sexual passion. Rusalka still cannot speak, but the Foreign Princess enters and provides a counter-melody to the Prince’s aria, as she complains of the Prince’s lack of hospitality. Rusalka tries to embrace the Prince, but he has become impatient with her silence. He tells her to dress for the ball and escorts the Princess back to the castle. The orchestra plays a melancholy version of Rusalka’s theme.
In the castle the guests partake in an extended dance – essentially a ballet – and we are reminded that in addition to his love of opera, Dvořák was a skilled instrumental composer. As the ballet concludes, Vodník rises from the fish pond (though he cannot exist on dry land, apparently he can transport himself from one body of water to another). Realizing that her quest to win the Prince’s love has slipped away, he laments his daughter’s fate. While the “Song to the Moon” is justifiably the most famous aria in this opera, as an expression of parental love, Vodník’s aria is equally touching.
In the background the chorus sings a folksong. Rusalka rushes from the palace and approaches her father. She is in tears, realizing that she has lost the Prince’s love (note: we should remember that Rusalka did not really lose her voice – it is only in the human world that she is mute. Perhaps the librettist made this distinction because he realized an opera heroine could not remain mute for the duration of the opera.) Rusalka tells her father of her despair, but he realizes that there is nothing more that he can do for her.
The Prince and Princess enter. They engage in a genuine love duet, and when Rusalka tries to intervene, he rejects her. Vodník angrily curses the Prince and tells him he will never be free of Rusalka. He takes Rusalka and disappears with her into the pond. Apparently tired of the rivalry, the Princess rejects the prince as well, telling him to dwell with Rusalka in Hell, as the curtain falls.
Same setting as Act I: Late evening, fading into a moonlit night.
A lengthy, ominous orchestral interlude reinforces Rusalka’s tragic situation. Rusalka sings her second big aria, longing for the life she had before she became human and wishing for death. Ježibaba comes out of her hut. She mocks Rusalka’s misery, cursing the human race. She informs Rusalka that she still has a way out of her predicament – she must kill the Prince. Ježibaba offers her a knife to do the deed, but Rusalka, admitting that she still loves the Prince, throws the knife into the lake. Ježibaba exits in disgust, unable to understand Rusalka’s attachment to the human race.
As Rusalka resumes her lament, the voices of the water nymphs are heard offstage, explaining that Rusalka has been corrupted by her contact with humans and can no longer cavort with them.
The Woodsprites reappear and sing a playful song, as they did in the first act, mockingly calling to Vodník to come and catch one of them. Vodník suddenly appears, but only to lament Rusalka’s sad fate.
The Prince rushes from the woods in a daze, looking for Rusalka. She suddenly appears to him. Now that she is no longer human she can speak with him. She tells him that it is too late; his betrayal has damned her for all time, and she is destined to be the cause of his death and damnation as well. One kiss would be his last. He says he no longer wishes to live. They kiss, but as he is dying Vodník reappears to tell him that he will not find redemption through his self-sacrifice. Rusalka, on the other hand, prays to God to have mercy on his human soul, and she disappears into the lake as the curtain falls.
Some critics have posited that the ending represents a sort of redemption, interpreting Rusalka’s return to the lake as an indication that she has saved both the Prince and herself in her final act of forgiveness. Unfortunately, the text seems to contradict this interpretation. Rusalka can never return to her old life but must live through eternity as a disembodied spirit, between the human and supernatural world, belonging to neither. There is no redemption through love such as one finds in the conclusion of Wagner’s Ring – only sorrow – and the eternal beauty of Dvořák’s magnificent score.