Dvorák composed a total of ten operas, some of which exist in several different versions. From his initial attempt with Alfred (1870), the composer showed a constant interest in opera his whole life. Despite enjoying triumphant success around the world as a composer of instrumental music, he yearned to be recognised in the field of opera. This desire grew all the more in final years of Dvorák’s life. In an interview for the Viennese magazine Die Reichswehr two months before his premature death, he declared: “In recent years I have written nothing but operas. I wanted to put all my strength, if the dear God still gives me health, into operatic creation. Not perhaps from some vain desire for glory, but for the reason that I believe opera to be the most aptly suited work for the nation as well.”
After returning from the United States in spring 1895, Dvorák focused almost exclusively on fairy-tale and mythical themes. After a series of symphonic poems based on the eponymous ballads from Karel Jaromír Erben’s A Bouquet of Flowers (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove), he produced three operas: The Devil and Kate (1899), Rusalka (1900), and Armida (1903), Dvorák’s last finished work.
Rusalka, one of the most staged operas of Czech music, embodies the very pinnacle of Dvorák’s creative mastery. It was composed in just a few months, from April to November 1900, and premiered at the National Theatre in Prague on 31 March 1901. The composer was greatly aided and inspired by the excellent libretto of Jaroslav Kvapil. His lyrical fairy tale about the irreconcilability of two worlds, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and displacement (“Neither woman nor fairy can I be, I cannot die, I cannot live!”) strongly impressed Dvorák. The seemingly naive story of a nymph punished for falling in love with a human hides a profound message of the fundamental ordering of the elements, energy, and emotions both in nature and among people. Dvorák was deeply convinced of this natural order of the world.
Since 1960, the definitive version of the opera has been the score prepared by Jarmil Burghauser as part of the Dvorák Complete Edition. While a landmark of scholarship in its time, by modern standards the edition leaves much to be desired. The inconsistent approach makes it often difficult to know what is Dvorák’s original work and what is an editorial intervention.
Our publishing house thus decided to prepare a new critical edition of the opera. The experienced editor Robert Simon draws primarily on the score that was prepared and used for the opera’s premiere, as Dvorák was present at rehearsals. (Burghauser refers to the score only occasionally.) The present edition uses the theatre score as primary, but refers closely to the autograph, and utilises other sources, such as the posthumously published vocal score, which was authorised by Dvorák, various sketches, and the first print of the libretto, which was revised for the new edition by Jonáš Hájek.
“What we present will not be a ‘new’ Rusalka,” Robert Simon comments on the results of his almost forensic editorial investigation. “Conductors, performers, and audiences will find the same Czech masterpiece that has been enjoyed for over 100 years. What we provide will be the authoritative version of the work, with all practical and musicological issues considered, well-documented, and clearly presented.”