Dvorak has long been a favourite composer of mine. I've been a fan of Wagner since childhood but other than some limited exposure to Mozart and some Italian stuff, I didn't delve deeper into opera until fairly recently as I needed to expand my horizons beyond metal vocals. Most singing on popular music (including metal) has bothered me because its almost always badly done in a technical sense. Most popular singers who are considered good get along more by having compelling voices and not by having good voices. Plus, most of what they sing about is pretty gay... hence preferring metal voices because you can just not pay much attention to what is being said and more on how its said. I never took this idea to its logical conclusion until recently; opera is mostly sung in foreign languages that I only vaguely understand at best. When I discovered that Dvorak had done some operas that were influenced by Wagner I had to Czech them out for myself. "Rusalka" is an absolutely beautiful piece that, unlike most other operas I've heard, stays totally compelling throughout its length. After listening to various versions I chose to buy the version with Milada Subrtova and Ivo Zidek leading as Rusalka and the Prince. Ms. Subrtova has an amazingly versatile and utterly beautiful voice. Mr. Zidek is supposed to be in his declining years on my CD, but he sounds earthy and believable in the role of the Prince... I do like his voice quite a bit in Rusalka and Branibori v Cechach by Bedrich Smetana. To mention Czech national opera bit further, it seems to be heavily influenced by Bruckner for its melodic and harmonic ideas and that is something I find quite appealing.
The story of Rusalka is basically the little mermaid but concerning a river-spirit instead of a mermaid. It opens with Dvorak stealing Wagner's Rheinmaidens from the Ring Trilogy and improving on the idea by a great deal. What strikes me about the storyline is that Rusalka wishes to become human for love and uses the witch Yezibaba to get her wish. She ends up killing her beloved Prince and herself in the end. The folly of separating oneself from natural law as well as the destructive nature of the persuit of individual ego are strongly highlighted in the story. All the parties, save the Water King, seem to be acting solely in their own narrow interest and merely exacerbate a tenuous situation. This is the reason I got the version featuring Subrtova as Rusalka: Gabriella Benackova plays the part as an 'innocent, delicate' little girl. As beautiful as her voice is, she gets the character wrong. Subrtova's steely and vibrato-encrusted interpretation gives one no doubt that she is a PRINCESS and will get what she shrilly demands.
Here is one of my favourite sections of the opera, just after the beginning with Rusalka telling her father the Water King about her desire to be human and love. This is the version sung by Benackova as I could not find any good versions with Ms. Subrtova singing. Ondrej Malachovsky does a great job as the Water King. This is a 'movie' version of the opera broadcast on communist Czechoslovak TV during the 70's. I think the costumes and choreography are fucking excellent, and the lip-synching actors do a great job... Rusalka's actress is particularly bang-able.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5lQguMeDOI
And for good measure here is the wonderful Ms. Subrtova doing Mesicku na nebi Hlubokem (song to the moon)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI0aV3kOufw
And for even better measure, and to show the great expressive range of her voice, here is the great Ms. Subrtova and Ivo Zidek singing a piece from Branibori v Cechach by Smetana (really, the only really great piece in the whole opera. I kind of regret buying this one.)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ78ruZ0tns
Edit to add:
For you pan-nationalists out there, Dvorak wrote the music of Rusalka to take advantage of the natural melodies of the Czech langauge and used a theme from mythology of the Slavs.