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Theatre / Rusalka

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Renée Fleming as the titular water nymph

Rusalka is one of 10 operas by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. With a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil based on Slavic folklore and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Bozena Nemcová, Rusalka is also Dvorák's most famous opera. It first premiered on March 31st, 1901 at the National Theatre in Prague.

The Slavic version of The Little Mermaid, our heroine Rusalka is a water nymph who lives in a lake instead of the ocean. She falls in love with a human prince and wishes to become human, so Rusalka goes to Jezibaba, the witch, to do so. Jezibaba demands that Rusalka gives up her voice, which is a terrible thing to do in an opera, but she does it anyways. The Prince quickly becomes disenchanted with the mute Rusalka, falling instead in love with the evil, manipulative Foreign Princess, and ends up being cursed by Vodník, Rusalka's father. This being an opera, there is no happy ending. Betrayed, Rusalka returns to her lake, where she learns she must stab the Prince in order to become a water spirit again. But she doesn't have the heart to do so, and thus ends up condemned to be a demon of death.


Later on, the Prince arrives, on the verge of death. He meets Rusalka and begs her to kiss him, even though he knows her kiss will mean death and damnation. He and Rusalka sing a ravishing love duet, at the end of which they kiss. The Prince dies, and Rusalka returns to the lake, now a vengeful spirit of death.

Rusalka is one of the few Czech operas that tends to be a staple of opera companies worldwide, and the titular role herself is quite demanding, even if she doesn't sing for almost an entire act. The "Song to the Moon" aria from Act I ("Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém" in Czech) is the most popular excerpt from this opera, and is frequently performed for concerts and recitals.


This Work Provides Examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Vodník goes through this as he sees Rusalka suffering, lamenting over how she's struggling to be a human.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: How Rusalka feels in Act II, especially when you see the way the Gamekeeper and Turnspit talk about her, and the way the Foreign Princess treats her.
  • Alpha Bitch: The Foreign Princess.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Foreign Princess definitely counts as this.
  • And I Must Scream: A sort of subversion; Rusalka isn’t allowed to speak among the humans, but she’s able to speak with her father Vodník and the witch Jezibaba.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Or else it’ll end in death of the one you love and eternal damnation for yourself!
  • Become a Real Boy: Rusalka yearns to become a human and feel love. However, if she fails to win the Prince’s heart, she’ll turn into a death demon at the bottom of the lake.
  • Berserk Button: Seeing Rusalka being mistreated by the Prince, the Foreign Princess, the Turnspit, and the Gamekeeper is a huge one for Vodník, who curses the Prince and scares both the Gamekeeper and Turnspit away from the forest.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Vodník is friendly towards the wood nymphs and fatherly towards Rusalka. He also get dangerously pissed off when he sees the Prince mistreating Rusalka, as well as hearing the Gamekeeper and Turnspit claiming that Rusalka has betrayed the Prince.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Rusalka. She gives up her voice and immortality in order to find love with the Prince, who quickly grows indifferent to her when she can’t speak and thinks she’s too cold before pursuing a Foreign Princess, even kissing her in front of Rusalka! Even worse, Rusalka cannot return to the lake and is condemned by her sisters, so she ends up as a demon of death trapped at the bottom of the lake.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Prince tracks down Rusalka in Act III, who has become doomed to wander as a death spirit, and begs for her forgiveness and for her to kill him with a kiss. Rusalka does so, allowing the Prince to die happily in her arms.
  • Cross-Cast Role: The role of the Turnspit is sung by a soprano.
  • Curse Escape Clause: Jezibaba tells Rusalka that she must stab the Prince in order to become a water spirit again. However, Rusalka doesn’t have the heart to do so.
  • Cute Mute: Rusalka when she's human and voiceless, especially when she meets the Prince.
  • Daddy's Girl: Rusalka is this to Vodník. He watches over her when she's at the ball and laments at how Rusalka doesn't fit in with the humans, and after the Prince callously turns Rusalka away, he curses him out of rage.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Jezibaba is more of a neutral figure in the opera, as she had no ulterior motivations, and her price was simply payment. Plus, she does give Rusalka an opportunity to become a water spirit again.
  • Deal with the Devil: In order for Rusalka to be a human and gain a human soul, she has to give up her speech and immortality, and the Prince must be faithful to her. If she fails to win the Prince’s heart, he will die and Rusalka will be eternally damned.
  • Delicate Is Beautiful: Definitely how the Prince sees Rusalka in Act I, especially since she’s so shy to his affections.
  • Despair Event Horizon: At the start of Act III, when Rusalka cannot bring herself to kill the Prince and is rejected by her sisters, causing her to turn into a death spirit.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Played for drama. The Prince is sick and begs Rusalka to kiss him so he can die. Despite her hesitation, she kisses him and he dies in her embrace.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Zig-zagged. The Prince seems to be a good guy in Act I, when he falls in love with Rusalka. Come Act II, and he’s grown bored of her and takes an interest in the Foreign Princess on his wedding day. However, he ultimately feels guilty about his actions in Act III, and accepts death happily.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Practically the entire cast. Special mention goes to the Prince, the Foreign Princess, the Hunter, the Turnspit, and the Gamekeeper. Meanwhile, Rusalka is the name of a water nymph in Slavic mythology. Vodnik (the Water Goblin) is the Czech name of a male water spirit in Slavic mythology. Jezibaba (the Witch) is the Czech name of a witch in Slavic folklore.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Averted with Vodník, a bass role, who’s friendly and teasing towards the Wood Sprites, and kind and fatherly towards Rusalka. Jezibaba, a mezzo-soprano role, plays with this a bit. Subverted with the Foreign Princess, as she is a soprano role.
  • Femme Fatale: The Foreign Princess.
  • Fire and Ice Love Triangle: Gender-inverted, with the passionate Foreign Princess vs. the quiet and chilly Rusalka. Even though the Prince falls in love with Rusalka, he grows bored since she’s cold and cannot talk, and instead goes after the Foreign Princess. However, he ultimately chooses Rusalka in the end.
  • Foreshadowing: Jezibaba’s warning of what will happen if Rusalka fails to win the Prince’s heart. The Hunter’s story of the man who accidentally shoots his lover also counts.
  • Go Out with a Smile: The Prince dies flashing a smile as he dies happy in Rusalka's arms.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: During Act II, the Foreign Princess always wears one of these. Rusalka also wears one in Act II, along with her water nymph dress in Act I.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Many productions portray Rusalka as having long blonde hair, which matches her sweet, pure heart.
  • Harp of Femininity: When Rusalka is introduced, a harp is playing gentle chords. The harp also introduces her famous Song to the Moon.
  • The Ingenue: Rusalka is definitely one.
  • Kick the Dog: The Foreign Princess seduces the Prince on his wedding day, making him become cold towards Rusalka. Why? Because she’s jealous and feels insulted.
  • Kiss of Death: After Rusalka becomes a death spirit, her kiss would be lethal for the recipient. The Prince begs her to kiss him so he can die in peace. She does so, and he dies happily in Rusalka’s arms.
  • Last-Second Chance: Jezibaba tells Rusalka that if she stabs the Prince, she can become a water nymph again.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Rusalka is light, while the Foreign Princess is dark.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Rusalka is always portrayed as having beautiful long blonde hair.
  • Love at First Sight: Rusalka for the Prince, and vice versa. In fact, the Prince declares that he and Rusalka will get married within seconds of meeting her.
  • Love Hurts: What happens to Rusalka when the Prince takes an interest in the Foreign Princess and ignores his new bride.
  • Love Redeems: The Prince’s choice to die in Rusalka’s arms ultimately redeems him.
  • Love Triangle: Rusalka and the Foreign Princess for the Prince.
  • Manipulative Bitch: The Foreign Princess, as she seduces the Prince into spurning Rusalka on his wedding day, simply because she was jealous.
  • Meet Cute: The Prince meeting Rusalka after she becomes a human.
  • Nameless Narrative: None of the characters have actual names, since their titles are Czech words. For example, Rusalka means ‘water nymph’, Vodník means ‘Water Goblin’, and Jezibaba means ‘witch’.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: The Wood Nymphs are playful and nature-loving, and they enjoy teasing Vodník from the banks of the lake.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The opera is very similar to The Little Mermaid. However, Rusalka doesn’t have a fish tail and looks like a young human woman. They usually come out at night and play with the Wood Nymphs, and they cannot leave the water unless Jezibaba helps them. Furthermore, Rusalka herself is a water spirit from Slavic mythology.
  • Papa Wolf: Vodník is like this for Rusalka, as he curses the Prince for spurning her, and threatens the Gamekeeper and Turnspit for telling lies about her.
  • Plucky Girl: Rusalka counts as one, since she believes so fervently that her love for the Prince can overcome all obstacles.
  • The Power of Love: Played with. Rusalka thinks that it can overcome all obstacles, only to be proven wrong quite horribly. Played straight in Act III, when she forgives the Prince and kisses him so he can die in her arms.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Most adaptations, notably Petr Weigl's film, have Rusalka with long blonde hair.
  • Redemption Equals Death: The Prince redeems himself for being a jerk in Act II by letting Rusalka kiss him so he can die in her arms in Act III.
  • Scenery Porn: Traditional productions tend to have very beautiful sets of the forest, the palace, and the lake.
  • Setting Update: The 2010 Bavarian State Opera production went Darker and Edgier by portraying Rusalka as a psychologically damaged Domestic Abuse victim imprisoned in a basement, in a setting inspired by the infamous Josef Fritzl case.
  • Slavic Mythology: Rusalka is a female water spirit from Slavic folklore, and is pretty much the equivalent of a mermaid, albeit without the fish tail. Vodník is the Czech version of the Vodyanoy, a male water spirit. Jezibaba, meanwhile, is a figure from West Slavic folklore that is closely related to Baba Yaga, a supernatural being in the form of a deformed woman.
  • Solitary Sorceress: Jezibaba lives in the woods near the lake. However, she's a neutral character who tells Rusalka about the consequences her spell has.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Rusalka is seen as this by Vodník.
  • Unrequited Tragic Maiden: Rusalka, who cannot bring herself to kill the Prince even after he betrays her, and ends up condemned to be a death spirit.