Dvorak's Rusalka takes place in a picturesque lake in an idyllic forest.
The Story of Rusalka
Rusalka, ACT 1
At the edge of the crystal-clear waters of a beautiful, cerulean lake, three wood-sprites merrily dance along the shores while teasing the Water-Goblin, ruler of the lake, who lives beneath the waves. Sitting amongst the branches of a willow tree overhanging the water, the Water-Goblin's daughter, Rusalka, a water-nymph, sulks and stares longingly in the distance. When the Water-Goblin takes notice, he asks her what is wrong. Rusalka tells him that she has fallen in love with a prince who regularly visits the lake for a swim. Because they are invisible to humans, no matter how hard Rusalka tries to embrace him with her azure waves, he is unaware of her existence. She asks her father if it is possible to transform herself into a human. He tells her it is possible, but she must know that all humans are full of sin. Without hesitation, she replies that they are also full of love. Knowing he will not be able to change his daughter's mind, he reluctantly tells her to visit the witch, Jezibaba, that lives in the small cabin on the lake's shore. As her father sinks deeply into the darkening waters, Rusalka floats to the surface to pray to the rising moon, asking it to reveal to the hunter her love for him. (Read the lyrics's to Rusalka's "Song to the Moon" - one of the opera's most beautiful arias.)
After saying her prayer, Rusalka makes her way to the Jezibaba's hut. After divulging her story, Rusalka impatiently awaits for Jezibaba's guidance. Jezibaba can make a potion that will transform Rusalka into a human, but it comes with a price. First, should Rusalka drink the potion, she will lose her voice. Rusalka is undeterred. Secondly, if the hunter betrays her, they will both be damned eternally. Again, Rusalka focused only on the love of the Prince, doesn't even bat an eye. She quickly agrees to the repercussions and drinks the potion Jezibaba has made for her.
When the sun rises the following morning, the Prince arrives with a hunting party in a nearby meadow, having chased a white doe into the clearing. When the white doe seemingly vanishes, the Prince sends his party away so that he can ponder the strange feelings that have suddenly overcome him. Several moments go by, and then he sees Rusalka; her long, beautiful hair dancing delicately in the breeze. The Prince embraces her and leads her away to his castle. Mournful cries can be heard coming from the depths of the lake as Rusalka's sisters lament her departure.
In the shaded garden outside the Prince's castle, the kitchen boy and gamekeeper gossip about the Prince's strange and unusual bride-to-be. Chalking it up to be some sort of witchcraft, the nameless and speechless girl will not keep the Prince's fickle attention long, the two men decide. Besides, he has already shown an interest in one of his wedding guests - a foreign princess, who seems desperate for his attention.
Inside the castle, the Prince enters into the room with Rusalka at his side. The Foreign Princess approaches them and scolds the Prince for not engaging any of his guests. He hugs Rusalka tightly, and despite her cold body temperature, he tells her that he must have her anyway. The Foreign Princess mocks the couple under her breath and declares that if she can't have him, she will take away their happiness. The Prince sends Rusalka away to her bedroom so she can prepare for the evening's ball. The Foreign Princess seizes the opportunity and begins to charm the Prince, and soon enough, he begins to court her. As Rusalka prepares for the ball, the Prince and Foreign Princess dance together and sing along with the other guests.
Later that evening, the Water-Goblin senses something has gone awry. After making his way out from the depths of the pond within the castle's garden, he sees Rusalka, tears streaming down her face, running out of the castle. Rusalka has given up hope and asks for her father's forgiveness. Because she is neither nymph nor woman, she can't die but her empty heart prevents her from living. Behind her, the Prince and Foreign Princess make their way into the garden, flirting with one another as young lovers do. The Prince confesses his love to her. In a last effort to gain his affections, Rusalka tries to embrace the Prince once more. He pushes her away and shouts that she is cold as ice. The Water-Goblin calls out to Rusalka and she returns to the water with her father. As the Prince becomes the Foreign Princess's lapdog, she laughs maniacally.
Full of grief, Rusalka asks Jezibaba if there is anything she can do to prevent her fate. Jezibaba hands her a dagger and instructs her to kill the human that betrayed her - only then can she be free of damnation. Rusalka throws the dagger into the lake. She will not take away the happiness of her only love. Instead, she gives into her fate and changes into a death spirit. She will live within the darkest depths of the lake and will come out only at night to lure humans into her death trap. Rusalka's sisters want nothing to do with her since she has lost all her joy.
The gamekeeper and kitchen boy seek out Jezibaba and accuse Rusalka of witchcraft, especially after betraying the Prince. The Water-Goblin quickly comes to Rusalka's defense and shouts with thunder and gusto that it was the Prince who truly betrayed her. Frightened, the men run away. The wood-sprites weep after the Water-Goblin recounts Rusalka's story.
Later that evening, the Prince, alone, travels to meadow by the lake in search of the white doe. Sensing Rusalka is near by, he calls out to her. Despite her new lot in life, she appears before him and questions him about his betrayal. He begs for forgiveness and asks for her to kiss him once more. She regretfully informs him that her kiss will bring death and damnation to him. Despite the consequences, he kisses her and dies in her arms. Sweetly, she thanks him for allowing her to experience human love. The Water-Goblin bewails that all sacrifices are futile as Rusalka descends to the depths with the other demons.