By Ralph P. Locke
Once much-performed, then banished from the stage by the Nazis, The Miracle of Heliane, now available in a fine new recording, is perhaps the best opera by the man who would become one of Hollywood’s leading composers.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane Annemarie Kremer (Heliane), Katerina Hebelková (The Messenger), Ian Storey (The Stranger), Aris Argiris (The Ruler), Frank van Hove (The Gatekeeper), Nutthaporn Thammathi (The Sword Judge) Freiburg Philharmonic, Freiburg Theater Choruses and Freiburg Bach Choir, conducted by Fabrice Bollon. Naxos 8.660410-12 [3 CDs] 162 minutes
Lovers of opera, decadence, and general excess, rejoice! This coming summer, the Bard Music Festival will stage, as its centerpiece, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which is possibly the single most important work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).
Some Korngold lovers will fight about that claim of course. “What about the Violin Concerto? or Die tote Stadt?” But Heliane, I’d say, has equal claims to greatness.
During the early twentieth century, Heliane and other operas by the young Korngold quickly made the rounds of German-speaking opera houses. In 1934, when he was 37, Korngold came to America to compose scores for major Hollywood films. And, with the Nazis increasingly in control in Germany, he stayed here. As for his operas, they vanished from theaters in German-speaking lands—theaters where they had once made their happy, passionate home. Korngold was not alone: the same happened to most other works by composers who were Jewish (e.g., Mendelssohn and Mahler), left-leaning, or artistically modernist.
In recent decades, singers, conductors and scholars have helped bring Korngold’s works back, allowing us to hear what all the fuss was about. Several major orchestral works have re-entered the repertory, including the remarkable Sinfonietta, Op. 5, written when he was just 15.
The best-known Korngold opera today is the aforementioned Die tote Stadt, written six years later, when he was all of 23! Some seven recordings or videos have been available at different times, with singers as fine as Katarina Dalayman and Hermann Prey under such renowned conductors as Erich Leinsdorf, Leif Segerstam, and Sebastian Weigle.
The plot of Heliane, an astounding mishmash of mythology and symbolism, derives from a play by Hans Kaltneker, a writer who died at age 24. The characters other than Heliane have no names—just descriptive labels indicating their societal role. The plot and characters reminded me at times of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) but also of other myth-laden operas, such as Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (The King of Lahore) and Puccini’s Turandot.
Briefly, Heliane (soprano), the young wife of The Ruler (baritone), is utterly unattracted to her husband. The Stranger (tenor; Der Fremde might be better translated The Foreigner) has brought peace to the land and gained the affection of its people. The Ruler, jealous of The Stranger’s ability to elicit love, imprisons him. The Stranger is visited in his cell by Heliane, who, smitten, disrobes before him. The Ruler (at the urging of a woman he had previously loved, The Messenger—a mezzo role) condemns Heliane to death. The Stranger commits suicide.
The citizens of the kingdom, devoted to The Stranger, now rise up in protest, and this leads The Ruler to insist that Heliane perform a miracle and bring the dead man back to life. Heliane, instead, admits that she loved The Stranger but makes clear that she never touched him. This is disturbing to the crowd, which threatens to kill Heliane. The Stranger, miraculously, now arises from the dead. The Ruler stabs Heliane to death. The Stranger banishes The Ruler and blesses the people with freedom. Heliane and The Stranger (both now clearly having entered a very different New Life) ascend to Heaven.
The music is utterly fascinating: a heady blend of Puccini and Strauss and (in some of the orchestral passages) Mahler and, if I’m not mistaken, echoes of Debussy’s Le martyre de saint Sébastien (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian). Heliane contains violence and lyricism, delicacy and magic aplenty. But the orchestral fabric is often quite full (as in Wagner and Strauss), which I suspect may tempt the singers into forcing. Performers in early productions often found the vocal requirements overly demanding.
A memorable appoggiatura-drenched motive recurs at crucial moments. Korngold may himself have borrowed it unconsciously from Puccini (La fanciulla del West—The Girl of the Golden West), and Andrew Lloyd Webber, decades later, would borrow it (probably quite consciously) from Puccini, Korngold, or both, and build it prominently into “The Music of the Night,” in Les Misérables.
A good but not perfect studio recording was released in 1993. It is conducted by John Mauceri, with generally fine singers—including Anna Tomowa-Sintow, who meets the work’s intense vocal requirements impressively but sometimes seems emotionally distant.
The new recording was made in July 2017 at the Freiburg Konzerthaus, partly in two unstaged performances. It offers a view of the work that is much the same as the one in the 25-year-old Mauceri recording. Fabrice Bollon, conducting the very fine Freiburg orchestra, nicely differentiates the dramatic mood of the various scenes, helping to make a long opera feel constantly interesting.
The singers all seem to understand what they are singing about, despite being from many different countries (including England, the Netherlands, Greece, and Thailand). Alas, the wobbles that afflicted a few roles in 1993 afflict some members of this cast as well. (Mauceri’s main tenor, John de Haan, was firmer than Ian Storey here, if still not the Parsifal/Otello voice one might dream of.) Fortunately, Annemarie Kremer, who has sung the role in Vienna, sounds better and better as the opera moves along. And one singer is clearly stronger than her equivalent from 1993: Czech-born Katerina Hebelková (The Messenger), steady as a rock and with high notes that gleam. I look forward to hearing her in other repertory. The chorus, which has much to do, sings marvelously.
I urge any opera lover to get to know Heliane. There are many marvelous moments in it, including the amazing duets for Heliane and The Stranger in Act 1 (in prison) and Act 3 (the opera’s visionary conclusion). Heliane’s aria “Ich ging zu ihm” (“I went to him,” in Act 2) is the best-known excerpt, having been recorded by singers as distinguished as Lotte Lehmann and Renée Fleming. Its final section uses, heart-tuggingly, that appoggiatura-laden passage I mentioned earlier.
Perhaps for copyright reasons, the Naxos release offers no libretto, not even online. (Worse, the synopsis omits reference to several track numbers.) The current CD re-release of the Mauceri recording is, likewise, libretto-less. But its original CD release included a libretto and a fine translation; copies of that 1993 release can be found in large libraries or purchased from used-record dealers. (Anybody buying one of the currently available recordings or listening to it on Spotify or some other streaming site would be well advised to hunt down a copy of the 1993 release of the Mauceri and photocopy its libretto.) The Naxos booklet, by the way, has some embarrassing typos, e.g., “bilde” instead of “blinde” (the German word for “blind”), and the translation of the otherwise informative essay is inadequate.
And so back to the timely announcement with which I opened: Heliane is the central work to be performed at the 2019 Bard Music Festival, and, as Don O’Connor has put it when sharing the good news, “decadence doesn’t get better than that” (American Record Guide, November/December 2018, p. 19). The production features Lithuanian soprano Aušrine Stundyte, tenor Daniel Brenna, and baritone Alfred Walker. And presumably, in Bard’s wonderful Sosnoff Theater, which has 900 seats (compared to 4000 at the Met!), the singers won’t feel the need to force their tone.
There will be, I am assured, supertitles to help you catch every nuance of the sung words.
Stop the press!: Naxos has announced that it will release in May 2019 a DVD of a much-hailed production of the opera, in more or less modern dress, from the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, starring Sara Jakubiak. (In other words, the cast and conductor will be entirely different than on the Naxos CD recording that I’ve just reviewed.) It’s beginning to seem that we’re seeing not just a tenor hero but an opera rising from the dead. The trailer for the forthcoming DVD looks absolutely gripping!
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. The present review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and is used here by kind permission. Ralph Locke also contributes to the online arts-magazines NewYorkArts.net, OperaToday.com, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.