Inspired by tales of spirits

Although Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) decided to turn his attention toward opera later in life, after he had already earned international acclaim with his symphonies and other classical compositions, the first five years of trying to establish his name as a composer of opera were mostly in vain. That was until the day in 1899 when Czech poet and playwright Jaroslav Kvapil decided to try his hand at a libretto based on then-popular legends and mythology. A series of works inspired by fairies and sprites had already captured public attention and Kvapil decided to turn to the fairy tales of his own country and of Europe more generally to find inspiration for a new work. His reading introduced him to the Rusalkas, beautiful nymphs who were the restless souls of young women that never married and who lured young men to their deaths. Kvapil took his new libretto to a number of composers before it landed in the hands of Dvorak, who was desperate at the time to score an opera success. When the composer saw Kvapil’s references to the ballads in Karel Jaromir Erben’s «Garland of National Tales,» also a favorite of Dvorak, he knew that «Rusalka» was the way to go. Kvapil, meanwhile, had tried to turn the tide against the realism that predominated in the opera works of that era with French naturalism and Italian verismo. He also decided to tell the story from the point of view of Rusalka, rather than from the perspective of the mortals. The result was successful because of the psychological depth of the characters and the fact that it came at a time when artists and audiences were beginning to pay closer attention to psychology. With the libretto in hand, Dvorak secluded himself in his summer residence in Vysoka, outside Prague, in the spring of 1900, where the lush Bohemian countryside and the misty swamp nearby provided him with the atmosphere necessary to set his operatic drama. Rusalka is a naiad and the daughter of the water goblin Vodnik. She tells her father that she has fallen in love with a handsome prince who comes to the woods by the lake to hunt. She wants to be made mortal but her father knows that there are many risks involved in such a transformation. Nevertheless, he sends her to a witch, Jezibaba, who agrees to help the smitten sprite with a magic potion and a warning: Her human self will not be able to speak. The prince is hunting near the lake when he sees Rusalka lying beside it. He is overwhelmed by her beauty and carries her off to his castle. Rusalka may be beautiful, but her silence makes her beloved prince seek the attentions of another woman and Rusalka returns to the lake and asks her father to take her back. Another potion from Jezibaba allows Rusalka to live in the lake, but she has now turned into a vengeful spirit that seeks the souls of men. When the prince comes to the lake, he sees his Rusalka and is once again enchanted by her beauty. He asks her to kiss him, even though he knows that a touch of her lips will result in his death. Dvorak’s «Rusalka» became an instant success after its premiere at the National Theater of Prague on March 31, 1901. Within just a few years, it had been performed all over Europe and even across the Atlantic and today it remains the Czech composer’s most popular opera. Here in Greece, «Rusalka» will be premiering on Friday in a production by the Greek National Opera that runs until March 15. «Rusalka» will be on at the Olympia Theater (59-61 Academias, tel 210.361.2461). Ticket prices range from 20-100 euros.

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