A Fine New Recording of Korngold’s Masterpiece, Das Wunder der Heliane

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Lotte Lehmann, Jan Kiepura, and Lothar Wallerstein in a Rehearsal for the Hamburg Premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane.

Lotte Lehmann, Jan Kiepura, and Lothar Wallerstein in a Rehearsal for the Hamburg Premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane.

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 Orchestra, 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, had reason this year to rejoice. This past summer, Bard Summerscape staged, as its centerpiece, complementary to the Bard Music Festival, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which is possibly the single most important work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). And the work has now appeared in a sumptuous new recording (reviewed here) as well as in a much-praised DVD version from the renowned Deutsche Opera (Berlin), which indeed looks wonderful in this trailer.

Some Korngold lovers will fight about my phrase “single most important.” “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, though some of them had already begun to be considered somewhat passé in the face of works that departed more boldly from tradition, such as Weill’s Mahagonny, Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, and Berg’s Wozzeck. Korngold’s works had good company in being banned by the Nazis. The same was true of works by nearly all composers who were, like Korngold, Jewish (e.g., Mendelssohn, Mahler, Weill, and Schoenberg) or who were left-leaning or artistically modernist.

In recent decades, singers, instrumentalists, 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, completed six years after the Sinfonietta, 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. Other than Heliane, the characters 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 rises 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, with, 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. 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.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015) (both from Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaTodayMusicology Now, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His 18 articles for New York Arts have included pieces on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëlla major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

 

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