Dvořak’s opera Rusalka is roughly the same story as “The Little Mermaid.” Rusalka is a water nymph who has fallen in love with a human prince. Her father warns her that this will be nothing but trouble, but Rusalka does not listen. She goes to the witch Ježibaba, who is willing to turn her into a human woman, for a price – her voice and her magic water nymph’s veil. She warns Rusalka that if she fails to win the prince’s heart, they will both be damned.*
Needless to say, this experiment in living is not a success. The prince is entranced for a while, but is soon disappointed that the silent Rusalka will not or cannot return his love with the degree of enthusiasm one would expect from a real living person. The libretto has him noting that she is cold and passionless; the stage direction this version has Rusalka (Renée Fleming) tearing herself away in pain every time they embrace. The prince tires of this and turns to a human woman, the Foreign Princess. Rusalka, betrayed, is banished back to the water, but alone – she is neither dead nor alive, neither water spirit nor human woman. She has become a malevolent spirit whose job is to lure men to their deaths. At least that is the job description. Rusalka is not actually very malevolent, though, because when Ježibaba returns to tell her that the prince’s blood can release her from this sorry fate, Rusalka refuses.
Then the prince shows up. He regrets betraying her and wants to make it up. Rusalka explains – she can talk again by Act III, fortunately – that if she kisses him now, he’ll die. Here this particular production diverges from the libretto a bit in tone, if not in content. According to the conventional straight-up synopsis of the thing, the prince is willing to be kissed, and Rusalka does, commending his soul to God as he dies, and after this (one assumes) she returns to the bottom of the lake for an eternity of lurking. In this version, Rusalka and the prince settle down together on a bed for a bit more than a kiss, the dark water – in the form of a projection – closes over them, and that is the end. It manages to be not quite so grim as it sounds.
(Next section here.)
*I am disappointed to report that unlike in the Disney version of this story, the witch in this version is NOT half woman, half aggressively fleshy octopus.