Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is probably the best known Czech opera, in this country anyway. He wrote 10 operas, and, to the best of my knowledge, only Rusalka is performed in the United States. In the first act, Rusalka has a beautiful aria called “Hymn to the Moon” in English. I set out to find a good rendition of it to post. Even though she does not sing it in Czech, but rather in German, Welitsch is the type of voice that should sing this aria. Rita Streich is very good because the tone production and the voice are very free. It is very easy to muddy this aria just because of the nature of the Czech language. Streich does not do that. And just as aside, apropos of nothing, this is one of the many, many arias that Renée Fleming never should have tried to sing. It is way out of her Fach.
The most popular and successful Czech opera, Rusalka, tells the story of an immortal water nymph from Slavic Mythology who falls in love with a prince and yearns to become human. It is a sad and touching fairy tale which contains many similarities to Undine by German poet Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and The Little Mermaid by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson.
The opera Rusalka is based on the fairy tales of the folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben and the Czech writer, Božena Němcová. The opera was composed by the Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák and the libretto was written by the Czech poet and librettist, Jaroslav Kvapil, who first had the idea to write the libretto while on the island of Bornholm.
Kvapil began working on the libretto for Rusalka before he had any contact with the composer. In fact, at the time when he wrote the libretto, he was uncertain who would compose it. It was not until 1899, when the libretto was complete, that Kvapil began searching for composers to set his text. He offered it to a few other composers before Dvořák, none of whom showed any interest in the text. During this time, Dvořák was looking for a new project and issued an advertisement through the National Theatre. It was not until Kvapil saw the advertisement that Dvořák was looking for a libretto that he offered it to Dvořák through the theatre’s director.
Dvořák composed the opera quite quickly. The composition of the first draft began on April 22, 1900 and was completed by the end of November. Dvořák had always been interested in the stories of Erben and was very enthusiastic about the work.
Dvořák manages to evoke images of moonlight reflecting on the black lake and leaves rustling in the dark forest. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful and mysterious and, at times, even sinister.
Dvořák composed Rusalka when he was 60 years old, just three years before he died. It was the ninth opera he composed in his lifetime.
In the spring of 1901, Rusalka premiered at the National Theatre in Prague where Dvořák had once played as a young musician many years prior.