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The Story of 'Rusalka'

ACT ONE of Dvorak's opera begins on the banks of a lake in the forest. Wood nymphs are teasing Vodnik, a water sprite. Rusalka, a water nymph, is one of Vodnik's daughters, and like her father and sisters, she's immortal, but only while she stays in her watery home.

Rusalka soon makes an alarming confession. She has fallen in love with a mortal man, a Prince, who often comes to swim in the lake. She's so much in love that she wonders how she might give up her immortality, and become human, so she can join him. Vodnik is horrified, but sees that Rusalka is determined. So he tells her that to become human, and actually walk on land, she'll have to visit the witch Jezibaba.

Rusalka seeks out Jezibaba, who agrees to help, but there are conditions. In return for the soul of a mortal woman, Rusalka must give up her voice — she'll be unable to speak. And if her love is rejected, she'll be cursed to live alone for eternity, luring wanderers to their deaths in the lake. Jezibaba also warns Rusalka that she really doesn't understand human love — it's not always what it seems to be. But Rusalka is convinced that her love for the Prince is strong enough to overcome all of this. She ignores Jezibaba's warnings, agrees to her conditions and drinks the potion which transforms her into a human being.

The next morning, the Prince returns to the lake, not really knowing what keeps drawing him there. This time, he discovers Rusalka sleeping in the forest. As Jezibaba warned, Rusalka's voice is gone and she can't speak to him. But the Prince is overwhelmed by her beauty and takes her back to his castle.

In ACT TWO, at the castle, things aren't going so well. Two servants, the Gamekeeper and the Turnspit discuss the Prince's strange behavior ever since he met Rusalka. The Prince is planning to marry her, but he's frustrated by her apparent refusal to speak. When he tries to embrace her, she's frightened by his passion, but he sees her fear as a sign of coldness.

Things get worse when the Foreign Princess comes to visit. She scolds the Prince for ignoring her and paying too much attention to the silent Rusalka. Other guests arrive for the wedding feast, and as the celebration begins, we also hear Rusalka's father, Vodnik, singing gloomily about his daughter's unhappy new life.

Before long, the Prince warms to the Foreign Princess's bold advances. They embrace passionately, and the Prince sends Rusalka away. When Rusalka runs to her father for comfort, Vodnik curses the Prince for his boorishness, and the curse takes effect immediately. The Prince is terrified. He turns back to the Foreign Princess, but she mocks him, and says he should follow Rusalka into hell.

As ACT THREE begins, Jezibaba tells Rusalka that there is only one way she can return to her home and family — she must kill the man who spurned her. Rusalka refuses, and returns, alone, to the water.

Before long the Gamekeeper and Turnspit pay a visit to Jezibaba. They tell the witch that the Prince has been ill ever since Rusalka left, and ask for help. Hearing this, Vodnik angrily chases them away, cursing all of humanity.

Wood nymphs emerge from the forest, hoping to play their usual, teasing games with Vodnik. Instead, he greets them with the sad story of Rusalka's fate.

Eventually, the Prince himself comes looking for Rusalka, and the two meet for the last time. The Prince wants her back, and tries to kiss her. But Rusalka tells him that because he rejected her, if she kisses him, he'll die. The Prince says that if he can't have Rusalka, death is exactly what he wants. Rusalka can't resist. She kisses him with the passion they have both longed for, and the Prince dies in her arms. Rusalka prays for his human soul, and disappears into the lake as the opera ends.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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