Two Mermaid Operas: Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák & Rusalka by Alexander Dargomyzhsky

This post talks about two rare opera gems inspired by Slavic mythology that are hauntingly beautiful, one from Russia and one from The Czech Republic.

Rusalka is a part of Slavic pagan mythology and features in several different Slavic peoples cultures.

‘Mermaid’ is what Rusalka is often translated as. Britannia, however, defines the word as “lake-dwelling soul of a child who died unbaptized or of a virgin who was drowned (whether accidentally or purposely).”

Rusulki were traditionally seen as helpful and not malicious.

“According to Vladimir Propp, the original “rusalka” was an appellation used by pagan Slavic peoples, who linked them with fertility and did not consider rusalki evil before the 19th century.[citation needed] They came out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields and thus helped nurture the crops”

My first exposure to the mythical story of Rusalka was the opera by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, one of my favorite composers. His work Op. 114, is a three act opera with the libretto set in Czech. Composed in 1901. It draws on Czech mythology and incorporates folk rhythms. The libretto, written by Jaroslav Kvapil, based it off the fairy tales of Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová.

Rusalka is a tragic love story, with themes of love, betrayal, grief and suicide. The plot is of a romance between a millers daughter Natasha who lives on the bank of the Dnieper River and a Prince. He leaves her and she drowns herself in the lake. Later he is drawn by mysterious forces to the lake and haunted by her image where he is drawn into the lake towards her.

Czech opera is not as popular as Italian, German, and French opera but there are some incredibly beautiful works. I have only listened to a handful: The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček, Armida by Antonín Dvořák, and Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček.

Rarely known and rarely performed is the opera Rusalka (Русалка) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский). Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka is inspired by the incomplete poem by the most famous and celebrated Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka was composed during 1848-1855 and was first performed at the Mariinsky Threatre in 1865. It is a four act opera with six tableaux. Notably, the composer wrote the libretto himself.

“The libretto was written by the composer himself and he took great care with Alexander Pushkin’s text, making minimal amendments. Dargomyzhsky’s music conveys the artistic essence of the dramatic plot of the tragedy: it is not no much about the vengeful retribution of the mermaid, the Miller’s deceived daughter as it is about the remorse and spiritual transformation of the Prince.”


I think that it is quite an underrated piece, although my favorite composer was critical of it.

“Although much of Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka is fairly conventional in musical form and style, its singular innovation for the history of Russian music in particular is the application of “melodic recitative” at certain points in the drama. This type of recitative consists of lyrical utterances which change continuously according to the dramatic situation, with likewise varied accompaniment in the orchestra. Dargomyzhsky was to apply this technique of vocal composition on a small scale in his songs and on a large scale in his final opera, The Stone Guest.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Mermaids painted by Ivan Kramskoi (Иван Крамской) in 1871.

It’s not every day that you get to watch a film that is 114 years old. If that sounds like your cup of tea, there is the Soviet Russian silent short film Rusalka, made in 1910.

When I watch these old films I enjoy imaging people at the time. I imagine that they must have thought that they were just having a bit of fun with a new emerging technology and probably didn’t think that people over one hundred years later would be watching their short nine-minute film.

I think even in their own time, technology developed so rapidly that these first films were lost among the full feature films and technical innovation of later years. It’s also a piece of history. Most of the Russian films I have watched have been Soviet Russian films but this belongs to the category of The Cinema of the Russian Empire, which produced over 2700 films but of which only a small portion (around 300) survive today.

The producer – Aleksandr Khanzhonkov (Александр Ханжонков) – and Director – Vasily Goncharov (Василий Гончаров) – were pioneers of Russian cinema and worked on Russia’s first feature length film, Stephan Razin (Стенька-Разинъ) in 1908.

Ilya Repin’s (Илья Репин) Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (Садко в Подводном царстве) painted in 1876 is often used as cover art for Rusalka, both the Czech and Russian version.

Interestingly, there is an opera called Sadko composed by Rimsky-Korsakov – another of my favorite composers. While Rusalka and Sadko are both based on Salavic folklore and mythology, the source and story of Sadko (Op. 5.) is not the same as Rusalka, and was inspired by a medieval epic poem (былина).

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