When Antonín Dvorák let it be known that he was looking for a new libretto to set to music, Jaroslav Kvapil, a poet and dramatist who was nearly thirty years his junior, sent him one he had already written based on Fogué's Undine, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, and the French legend of Mélusine. Rusalka, a water nymph who is invisible to all mortals, falls in love with a human prince she has seen swimming in the lake. Even though she is warned of misery if she persists in her folly, she asks the witch Jezibaba to transform her into a mortal woman. The witch agrees, but the transformation comes with a price‹a betrayal by the prince means eternal damnation for them both. Naively trusting in the goodness of mankind and the omnipotence of love, Rusalka is undeterred: "My love will conquer all evil spells." The composer loved the story and began immediately to set it to music. The final result was quite unlike most operas being written at the time, which were heavily influenced by Italian verismo. When Rusalka opened at the National Theatre in Prague on March 31, 1901 (with Ruzena Maturová in the title role, Ruzena Bradácová as Jezibaba, Bohumil Pták as the Prince and Václov Kliment as the Water-Gnome) it was an immediate success.
When the supernatural world is invaded by human beings the consequences are almost always tragic. And even though Rusalka makes a huge sacrifice, is spurned by her lover, and ends up kissing the repentant betrayer to death, somehow the opera avoids darkness. Are men and women truly incompatible and is true love really impossible? Rusalka would say "no," her love, after all, does triumph.
Rusalka returns to the Met this season for three performances only: April 30, May 4, and May 8 matinee (noon).