BRUCH Die Loreley (Blunier)
Emanuel Geibel’s libretto to Die Loreley is based on an invented saga dating from 1800 which claims a huge rock in the Rhine near Sankt Goarshausen – the site of many a nautical accident – as a physical embodiment of an enchanting female who threw herself into the river having been spurned. Her spirit remains in and around the rock, a perfectly rational explanation for the mysterious echoes that are still heard at the site by passing seamen.
Geibel’s text was intended for Mendelssohn, but ended up in the hands of that composer’s acolyte Max Bruch, who was in his early twenties when he wrote it (1860 63). We know Bruch was staunchly opposed to Wagner’s new language and its ‘deceptive cadences’. Sure, you can deride Wagner and worship Mendelssohn. But if you can’t conjure up any semblance of the magic that either composer was capable of then you have a theatrical and dramaturgical problem – certainly in a story as fantastical and melodramatic as this.
To a point Die Loreley is stodgy, formulaic and awkward, but it gets better as it proceeds. There is some character development in the titular Lenore’s graduation from lyricism to dramatic desperation to eventual transcendence but musical characterisation is shallow elsewhere. As the booklet notes point out, the libretto offers moments of dark romanticism that could have delivered scenes reminiscent of Robert le diable or Der Freischütz. Instead, the Grand Scene with Spirits resembles hand-shunted flat scenery in musical form (this is where Bruch might have benefited from one of those ‘deceptive cadences’). The multiple Vintner’s Choruses are foursquare, even if the Prague Philharmonic Choir do a better job at hiding their lack of enthusiasm than the Munich Radio Orchestra sometimes do elsewhere.
Yet there’s some fire in the piece and some beautiful singing on this rendition of it. Blunier handles the angry exchanges at the end of Act 3 with clarity and punch and then milks the final scene – the tenor Otto’s suicide into the Rhine following Lenore’s return-spurning of him – for all the transcendence Bruch tried to convey without recourse to Wagnerian sleight of hand. Michaela Kaune plots Lenore’s journey well but can be a little squeaky at the top of her register. Thomas Mohr’s Otto is eagerly sung in a well supported tenor. There is lovely depth and true control from Magdalena Hinterdobler’s Bertha – the aristocrat fiancé Otto is never really into – sung with soul and intimacy even at high volume. Jan-Hendrik Rootering is unsteady as Reinald despite the oak-cask timbre of his voice. Ultimately, none can paper over what’s missing in the music. There are scores by this composer that deserve more regular airings, but ‘Bruch and the Art of the Theatre’ is a thesis that will surely never be written.