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What happens in Rusalka?

What happens when the water nymph Rusalka falls madly in love with a human prince, and asks the witch Ježibaba for help? Here's a synopsis of Dvořák's enchanting opera, with five musical excerpts.

ACT 1: IN THE FOREST

The three Wood Nymphs dance by the lake in the moonlight. They waken the water goblin, Vodník, who tries to lure one of them into the depths. They tease him and run away.

Rusalka, a water nymph, tells her father Vodník that she's fallen in love with a human - the Prince - when he came to swim in the lake. Now she wants to become a human in order to be with him. Rusalka’s father is horrified at this news, and tells her all humans are evil. When Rusalka begs for help, he says the only one who can help her is Ježibaba, the witch. Rusalka sings her "Song to the Moon" where she asks the silvery moonbeams to shine on the Prince, to tell him about her love.

Hear the soprano Asmik Grigorian as Rusalka in a concert version of the Song to the Moon:

Rusalka finds Ježibaba, who agrees to give her human shape, but on one condition: the loss of her voice. Ježibaba warns her that if she doesn’t find love, both Rusalka and the Prince will be damned. Convinced that her love for the Prince can overcome all spells, Rusalka agrees and Ježibaba gives her a potion.

Hear the mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Ježibaba in a recording from The Metropolitan Opera in New York:

When morning dawns, the sound of a hunting horn rings out, and a Hunter sings a foreboding song which urges not to hunt down the beautiful, white doe. The Prince appears with his hunting party, but asks the others to go back to the castle, as he suddenly feels strange and wants to be alone. He then discovers Rusalka, who has now become a woman - but not able to speak. He instantly falls in love and Rusalka throws herself into his arms. They leave together for the castle.

Listen to the tenor Pavol Breslik as the prince, in the aria he sings before he brings Rusalka to his castle:

ACT 2: INSIDE THE CASTLE

Inside the castle the preparations for the wedding ball have started. The Turnspit tells the Gamekeeper that the Prince will marry "a strange creature" that he has found in the forest. Furthermore, the Prince is already losing interest in his bride-to-be, and seems more interested in one of the female wedding guests.

Meanwhile, the Price struggles to make contact with the silent Rusalka, and finds her cold and incomprehensible. A Foreign Princess flirts with the easily influenced Prince, who has sent Rusalka away to dress for the ball and escorts the Princess into the ballroom.

Rusalka, who has become more and more intimidated by her surroundings, rushes in tears into the garden. Vodník finds his despairing daughter, who tells him that she regrets becoming a human. She who was born in the cold waters cannot compete with the warm-blooded passion of humans.

The bass Jongmin Park as Vodník at Wiener Staatsoper in 2016:

She asks for advice, revealing for her father that the Prince no longer loves her. The Prince and the foreign Princess come into the garden, and when Rusalka intervenes, he rejects her. Vodník warns the Prince of the fate that awaits him, then disappears with Rusalka. The Prince asks the foreign Princess for help but she ridicules him and tells him to follow his bride into hell.

ACT 3: IN THE FOREST

Rusalka is back in the forest, now trapped between two worlds: She's neither a woman nor a water nymph. Ježibaba appears and says she can help her: If Rusalka kills the prince, his blood will free Rusalka from the curse, and she can return to the lake again as a water nymph. But Rusalka refuses; she would rather suffer forever than kill the person she loves.

The Gamekeeper and the Turnspit arrive and ask Ježibaba to help the saddened Prince, who has been bewitched by a strange girl. Enraged, Vodník rises from the lake, saying that it was the Prince who betrayed Rusalka. The three Wood Nymphs enter, singing and dancing, but when Vodník tells them what has happened to his daughter, they fall silent and disappear.

The Prince appears, full of remorse. He is looking for Rusalka and desperately calling out for her to return to him. She emerges and warns him that a kiss from her would now kill him. The Prince believes only death can bring him peace - and asks her to kiss him. She does, and he dies in her arms.

Here's the final duet with Rusalka and her Prince from Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Belgium. Please note that this is a special version, where the singers are doubled by two dancers:

Rusalka premieres in Grieghallen March 18, 2023

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