Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which premiered back on March 31, 1901, is among the most popular Czech operas in the standard repertoire.
Unbeknownst to many, the work was not actually an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid or “Undine” by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. In fact, librettist Jaroslav Kvapil based his libretto on the work of Karel Jaromir Erben and Bozena Nemcová.
And yet, the works of Anderson and Fouqué often remain the major points of comparison with Dvorak’s story, the works all sharing numerous elements in common.
The basic outline of “Rusalka” exists in all three. A water-nymph or mermaid desires to have a human body to obtain a soul, falls in love with a human, incurs a disastrous marriage thanks to a former lover or lover-to-be and winds up having to face the decision of murdering her lover to save herself.
But the intricate differences in each work are what truly sets them apart and makes them unique.
“Undine” features no Prince but instead the knight Huldbrand, while Rusalka and the Little Mermaid fall madly in love with a Prince they observe as water spirits. There is also “Undine” also doesn’t lose her voice, though she retains her powers as a water spirit that put her love ill at ease. Both Rusalka and Andersen’s Mermaid are forced to lose their voices (the latter loses her tongue), features that bother their lovers. That said, unlike Rusalka or the Mermaid, Undine is described as a competent wife to her husband.
The Mermaid’s family does not stalk her about the way that “Rusalka’s” father and Kühleborn, Undine’s guardian uncle, do once she enters the human realm.
The Love Triangle
Andersen’s Prince has a family, which is never mentioned in Dvorak’s masterwork. In fact, the parents of Andersen’s Prince want him to marry another Princess and upon learning that the foreign Princess has saved his life (or so he thinks), he agrees to marry her, deserting the Mermaid.
In the opera, the Foreign Princess also intervenes, but she plays up the Prince’s unfulfilled desire for the cold Rusalka and tricks him into infidelity.
Undine’s love triangle is central to the work’s thematic material with Huldbrand forced to choose between the elemental and the terrestrial, the earth and the water. In fact, the third lover, Bertalda, is unknowingly of lowly birth. That said, unlike the two Princes from the other tales, Huldbrand becomes aware of Undine’s powers and her form as a water spirit and grows unhappy with his situation and winds up mistreating her. Upon losing her he opts for marrying Bertalda.
Of course, the endings of each work are the real clincher here. “Rusalka’s” is a remarkably dark ending with the titular character forced to murder her lover in hopes of saving herself. She finally communicates with her Prince and explains the dangers of his fate. The Prince in the opera is repentant for his betrayal and accepts his fate willingly. The Prince in Andersen’s fairy tale has no idea what fate has lined up for him.
Undine also kisses her lover to death and he is also willing to accept his fate. She is forced to kill him by the laws of the spirits.
Rusalka ends the opera as a demon of death, her place as an outsider cemented for all time. Undine’s fate remains uncertain, though she does make an appearance at Huldbrand’s funeral.
Contrast that with Andersen’s ending wherein the Mermaid decides not to murder her Prince and is turned into a daughter of the air thanks to her selflessness.