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ClassicsOnline Home » WALLACE, W.V.: Lurline (Lewis, Silver, Soar, Maxwell, Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Bonynge)
The Lorelei Rock in the Rhine River on which the siren Lurline played her enchanting harp to lure fishermen to a watery grave is the setting for Lurline, heard here in a new performing edition by Richard Bonynge. Victorian theatre critics declared it an outright success and the opera played for a substantial number of performances, making it a landmark production. Wallace’s melodious score is even richer than that of his earlier opera, Maritana.
By Bill Marsh
By Stephen Eddins
William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865)
A Grand Legendary Opera in three acts
Libretto by Edward Fitzball (1792–1873)
New Performing Edition by Richard Bonynge
Rupert (a young Nobleman) – Keith Lewis, Tenor
Guilhelm (his friend) – Paul Ferris, Tenor
Rhineberg (the River King) – David Soar, Bass-baritone
The Baron Truenfels – Donald Maxwell, Baritone
Zelieck (a Gnome) – Roderick Earle, Bass
Lurline (Nymph of the Rhine) – Sally Silver, Soprano
Ghiva (the Baron’s daughter) – Fiona Janes, Mezzo-soprano
Liba (a Spirit of the Rhine) – Bernadette Cullen, Mezzo-soprano
Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra
The Romanticism of Lurline
Mid-nineteenth century Britain and Europe were fascinated by chilling stories of the supernatural: the ‘Lorelei’ Rhine Maiden legend on which Lurline is based was a favourite and eighteen composers chose to set it between 1846 and 1912. These included Heinze, Lachner, Bruch and Catalani. The plot can be traced back to Clemens Brentano’s ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine of 1802. Ignaz Lachner composed the first German Loreley, with tragic ending, in 1846, but little came of it. More importantly, Mendelssohn was offered a Loreley libretto by Geibel in 1845 and started composing his Loreley [Opus 98] in 1847. He died, leaving only the Act I finale and two chorus numbers finished: these were published posthumously. Several other composers, most notably Marschner, asked Geibel for permission to use the same libretto, but were refused. Eventually in 1861, Geibel published his book and Bruch used it for a production in 1863.
It was probably during 1846 that Wallace’s interest in the ‘Lorelei’ legend grew. He worked with Edward Fitzball to provide a suitable text. In a letter to London critic and friend, J.W. Davison, Wallace talks about writing a ‘German’ opera for Vienna around this time and it seems that the Rhine-based legend was in his mind with a possible première at Vienna’s Imperial Theatre. With a 1848 Viennese uprising imminent maybe Wallace decided to put Lurline on hold until the dust had settled. A Wallace biographer reported that a German presentation of the opera took place around 1853/4 but its existence has never been proved.
There was a delay of twelve years between the composition and presentation of Lurline, possibly owing to Wallace’s absence in Europe for an American tour of Maritana in the 1850s. Around 1859 Wallace revised the opera. This fact is known because the script sent to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing purposes shows that long recitatives were shortened, which would have demanded a certain amount of score rewriting. The première took place at the Royal English Opera, Covent Garden, London on Thursday, 23 February, 1860 under the management of Pyne and Harrison.
The vocal score by Cramer, Beale & Co. appeared promptly, the day after the opening night. Comparison between the autograph and the 1860 vocal score/libretto shows that there had been some fifty alterations to the text. To 21st century eyes, many of the revisions seem inferior, and so this recording reverts to most of the original wording. Victorian theatre critics claimed the work an outright success and the opera played for a substantial number of performances, making it a landmark production of the season. Its popularity was assured when its name was given to a yacht, racing horse and children.
After Wallace’s death, a Crystal Palace concert in 1866 played the overture and vocal music from Lurline alongside the ‘Lorelei’ fragments left by Mendelssohn. In 1881, the London Polytechnic unusually presented Lurline, the Rhine Maiden, with ‘comic songs and arrangements of airs from Mr Wallace’s opera’. Later in 1890, the genuine Lurline score was revived by Carl Rosa Opera at Drury Lane where it was ‘pronounced a little short of a triumph’.
In his libretto, Fitzball provides much scope for a spectacular production. A picturesque vista opens the opera, with wooded river banks and rocky backdrop depicting the ‘Lurlei Berg’. This stands by a bend in the upper stretches of the Rhine and is a spot made famous by fine art paintings by artists such as Turner. The Act II setting in coral caves under the Rhine gives scope for visual fantasy for an industrious scenic artist. In one production a composite set on two levels was even provided (see page 8). Opera goers would enjoy the finale transformations, with storm, sinking barque and drowning fishermen; and at the third act finale, the majestic rising of the Water King with Nymphs above the angry waves. All this will have relied on complicated stage machinery if libretto directions were followed to the letter. Conscious of how inventive the Victorians were, we can recognise that such stage directions probably lived up to their claim. Contemporary engravings give a clear indication of the elaborate form in which the production was presented (see cover picture). Interestingly, despite the balletic appearance of Lurline and her Nymphs, there is only one occasion when Wallace provides a dance in the opera and this could hardly be classed as the kind of ballet typical of the French tradition.
© Raymond Walker
What happened to Lurline?
Like many eighteenth and nineteenth century operas it has just disappeared and not even one song or aria is now remembered. Yet, in its day it had great success and was universally praised.
The Illustrated London News, March 3rd 1860…“this piece is not only the chef d’oeuvre of the composer but may challenge a comparison with the best German, Italian or French dramatic music of the present day”. But in the same paper the libretto was savaged…“the simplicity and wild horror of the tale are entirely lost amid the melodramatic absurdities of the cockney school”.
Despite the libretto, “Wallace produced music—beautiful, impressive and picturesque—such as might have been written by Weber or Mendelssohn”.
The Illustrated Times of the same date…“The first night the overture and some half dozen of the songs were encored”…“certainly the best opera Mr Wallace has written…No operatic work has ever been produced on the English stage with so much success as Lurline”.
Hector Berlioz was a great champion of Wallace. Writing in the 20 March 1863 Feuilleton du Journal des Débats, he calls him “a dramatic
composer of rare value who must be reckoned with…I know as yet only Loreley (sic) and The Amber Witch, works of the highest distinction, in elegant and gracious style, but also strong and vigorous…his modulations are often very daring…his harmonies are varied and avoid scholastic dryness…the melody revels in shapes of incomparable suavity and charm. Loreley (sic) is a fantastic, graceful opera”.
This opera saved the fortunes of Covent Garden in 1860 with repeated performances. In the following decade it was heard in Dublin, Sydney and the United States. It was played less and less and disappeared completely in the first decade of the twentieth century. Today we can listen with fresh ears. Wallace was undoubtedly influenced by Weber and Mendelssohn and even to a lesser degree by Meyerbeer and Wagner. The piece flows well and is a treasure chest of wonderful melody. The orchestration compared to other British Operas of the period is quite advanced with brilliant use of the wind instruments. Wallace, who was known as the ‘Australian Paganini’, certainly did not neglect any care in setting the string parts.
Dates written in Wallace’s autograph score tell us that most of the opera was composed between 1847–8. During this period Wallace was in Vienna with a production of Maritana so he may have been considering an appropriate première there, but the work was put on one side for the next 11 years. A mystery surrounds the reason why Lurline’s overture was published in Paris in the early 1860s when no evidence of a Paris production can be traced. We know that Berlioz had been working with Wallace in the hope of getting the Théâtre Italien to accept a new opera, and this is believed to have been Lurline. It would explain why the Overture, in full score with band parts, is found to be published in Paris by Gérard. The publisher had previously provided a French edition of Balfe’s Bohemian Girl called La Bohémienne, hence a possible connection. Four different publishers provided vocal scores between 1860 and 1875 which indicates the popularity of the opera. Two editions even carried Italian lyrics alongside the English.
David Grant, the present day authority on Wallace, has written, “The grand opera, Lurline, which scored as great a success as Maritana, though a less enduring one, is undoubtedly Wallace’s most lyrical and romantic score, and apart from The Amber Witch, the most lavish, showing the influence of both Weber and Mendelssohn, as opposed to the Italian influences evident in Maritana. To stage Lurline today could be very effective using 21st century stage techniques. Now available in a more workable form, it would give the opportunity of letting a truly competent British operatic composer shine through the next 100 years.
© Richard Bonynge
Scene 1: A Cavern on the River Rhine
In moonlight, King Rhineberg surveys the night scene. Awaking his sleepy Gnome slave, he enquires of his daughter, Lurline, and asks for the Nymphs to be awoken. Lurline tells of her love for a mortal, Count Rupert, which concerns her father, the King. She recounts how as a siren she lures mariners with her enchanting harp to a whirlpool by the Lurlei Berg rocky outcrop. We hear fishermen sailing off into a gale.
Scene 2: Ghiva’s Apartment
Ghiva immodestly admires herself in front of a mirror. She is in love with Rupert. Encouraged by the Baron, her father, she schemes on how to catch him. Rupert returns her affection yet despite his castle and title, admits that he is poor. Disappointed to hear this, Ghiva declines to take Rupert’s hand in marriage.
Scene 3: Rupert’s Castle overlooking the Rhine
Rupert’s friends are discovered drinking and run forth to tow Rupert’s barque ashore. As they prepare for the sail he tells them that Ghiva has dismissed him. We hear Lurline’s harp and find the crew falling asleep while Rupert, entranced, sinks on a rock near the water’s edge. Lurline appears and places a ring on his finger. A storm gathers and he jumps into his boat to follow Lurline. The barque is seen sinking and the King with Gnome and Spirits appear, declaring vengeance!
Scene 1: The Crystal Dwelling of Lurline
The King, rich from the spoils of wrecks, has stored the treasures in his underwater cavern. Whilst gone he entrusts Lurline with the key to his treasure store. Rupert is awoken from his deep sleep by Lurline, saved from drowning by the magic ring. Realising her beauty, he declares his love. Liba and the Nymphs distract the King’s bad-tempered Gnome with drink so that he doesn’t notice Lurline unlock and enter the treasure store with Rupert.
Scene 2: An Apartment in the Baron’s castle
The Baron brings news that Rupert is drowned. Ghiva, still in love with Rupert, is temporarily distracted by hunters who encourage her to join their chase.
Scene 3: The Crystal Dwelling of Lurline
The King returns to find the Gnome drunk, and Lurline with Rupert gone. Above, from a boat, a chorus sings a Requiem heard by Rupert below the waves. In anguish, he tries to call out to them, but in vain. Lurline who has been watching feels guilty at luring him to her cave and decides to give him wealth to return to his castle for three days. The King, after persuasion, agrees to give some of his treasures to take with him.
Scene 1: By Rupert’s Castle on a stormy night
The Baron and Ghiva find shelter in a bower as Rupert arrives, clearly not drowned. His friends appear as the Gnome and attendants bring in gold. To celebrate, a drinking scene develops. The Baron and Ghiva having witnessed the action now wish to make amends. Rupert declares his love for another and in a jealous rage the furious Ghiva snatches his ring and throws it into the Rhine. The storm returns.
Scene 2: The Lurlei Berg at midnight
Lurline, with harp, laments for Rupert. The Gnome steals up and tells her that Rupert loves another, showing the ring as proof. The King appears and suggests she leaves the River to learn the frailty of mortal love.
Scene 3: By Rupert’s Castle, decorated for a fête
Festivities are in progress with dancers and games being played. Rupert, pining for Lurline, turns to find her sitting at a table. She reprimands him for breaking their pledge and losing the ring. He explains the situation and now, without her love, decides to take his life. The Baron and Ghiva warn that assassins intend to steal his gold. As they arrive, Lurline goes to her harp, and makes an incantation. The conspirators, now on a bridge, get washed away by the rising waves. When the waves subside, Rhineberg with his Spirits appear on a bank of Coral. Lurline is declared the Glory of the Rhine.
Raymond J Walker
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