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Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane: (British première) Soloists, Europachorakademie, London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Royal Festival Hall, 21.11.2007 (JPr)

Let's be clear from the outset, I enjoy reporting live music and accepting the invitations to attend operas and concerts; if I didn't, I wouldn't do it. Occasionally though, the complimentary ticket can feel like a curse, as critics are obliged to sit through performances which they would have left at the first opportunity if the ticket had been paid for. This was my reaction to this event unfortunately - a supposed highlight of the 2007/8 London concert season.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s death his 1927 opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) received its first British performance in a concert version by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.

In the 1930s and 40s, many Hollywood film scores were composed by refugees with a traditional European classical music education, among whom were familiar names like Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was another and was considered by many to be the most promising classical composer to work in the US film industry. Korngold - born in Brno in 1897 - had an influential Viennese music critic for a father and the young Erich Wolfgang was regarded as a phenomenally gifted child, impressing Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Puccini with his skills in composition at an early age. He furthered his studies under Zemlinsky among others, and by the early 1930s was firmly established as a classical composer with a number of operas including Die Tote Stadt [The Dead City]) in the regular repertoire and he was also a professor at the Vienna State Academy of Music. However anti-Semitism was on the march across Europe at that time in the 1930s, so he jumped at the chance to move to Hollywood, initially to adapt Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream for director Max Reinhardt. He followed this up by scoring some notable swashbucklers (often featuring Errol Flynn) like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. He gained two Oscars for his music with The Adventures of Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse.

After WWII ended, Korngold went back to Vienna and incorporated some of his film music into new classical works, but never quite managed to repeat his earlier successes. Whether this was because his romantic style was by then out of fashion or because he was dismissed as a ‘film composer’ and could no longer be considered a respectable classical musician is not clear.

Korngold chanced upon a drama called Die Heilige (The Saint) in 1923. It had been written by a little-known poet Hans Kaltneker (who soon after died from tuberculosis) apparently in the hope that the composer would set it to music. Although unaware of the author's aspiration, Korngold was attracted by the subject as was his librettist, Hans Müller:  together they adapted Die Heilige as the opera Das Wunder der Heliane. The work had significant biographical overtones for Korngold as we shall see later.

The plot, spread thinly around three hours or so of music, involves an unnamed tyrant,  the ‘Ruler’ who has imposed a ban on love in his kingdom, following his beautiful wife Heliane's refusal to love (or make love) with him. A messianic figure (the ‘Stranger’) is imprisoned for preaching against the ban and becomes attracted to Heliane, who as a last request before he is executed, obligingly takes off her clothes for him but goes no further. The tyrant discovers this and to protect Heliane, the stranger kills himself. Heliane's husband then puts her chasteness to the test by challenging her to raise the Stranger from the dead. She pleads her innocence but to the portents of a thunder clap and stars appearing in the sky the Stranger's body is resurrected. The Ruler immediately kills Heliane, but she too is brought back to life by a kiss from the Stranger and rises heavenwards, united with him ‘in the bliss of eternal love’. Light has won over darkness; love has triumphed over death: where have we had these ideas before?

Writing this opera coincided with Korngold's marriage to Luzi von Sonnenthal, whom he had loved for a number of years. Korngold's father, Julius, was obsessed with his son’s success and was very over-protective, even going so far as taking it out on his rivals in his reviews. Significantly though, Julius Korngold considered himself to be the upholder of a great musical tradition which was being undermined by the various modernisms that Erich found intriguing in the musical works of the early twentieth century. To defend his own musical style, Erich stood up to his father, but their life together was a succession of rows because, above all, Julius pressured Erich to do nothing but compose. This bad blood between father and son continued even after Erich's marriage when Julius seemed frightened that any talent that Wolfgang had for composition might desert him with too much activity in the marital bed. It therefore becomes not too difficult to apply real names to the ‘Ruler’, the ‘Stranger’ and the beautiful Heliane.

This is an esoterically mystical plot full of Christian imagery from a composer of Jewish descent and if this phrase makes you think that this opera was something like Parsifal then nothing could be further from the truth. I am sorry for those who consider Das Wunder der Heliane a ‘masterpiece’ worth putting on:  it seems to me that it certainly is not. There is sometimes good reason for works slipping out of the mainstream repertory and hearing this performance gave more than enough evidence for why this is so for this one. Quite why the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski expended money, resources and energy on this second-rate work is its own mystery.

There are bold chromatic harmonies and rhythmic spaciousness a-plenty in the score but most of them rarely serve the plot. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but even at moments of darkest despair for the characters who are singing it is possible to imagine Robin Hood battling it out in Sherwood Forest or a pirate ship afloat on the high seas. There is a nice aria for Heliane in Act II, an evocative prelude to Act III and an effective transfiguration for the Stranger and Heliane at the end but that is about it, so far as I could hear.  The rest is over-orchestrated, over-loud and an apparently endless orgy of overwrought eroticism. It is an insult to suggest there is much Wagner in the score however, perhaps only in the closing moments. Mostly, I thought it sounded like a Mahler symphony (say the Sixth) to which random poems had been added; there was also some clear imitation of Richard Strauss throughout and of Turandot in some of the choral moments.

The score needs huge orchestral forces and at one time, I think I counted nine additional brass players to the side of the platform blaring away. Despite his undoubted and deserved successes at Glyndebourne and at Welsh National Opera my reaction to the conductor was the same as when I heard him conduct Das klagende Lied earlier this season and it is my feeling that Mr Jurowski may not be a great singers’ conductor yet. Perhaps he had no say in the casting of this concert, but why he condoned the placing of the fairly underwhelming soloists behind his massive orchestra in the choir seats, with the two angelic voices to one side and the six judges to the other remained a puzzle.  All of the voices were swamped during Act I but perhaps someone whispered in the conductor’s ear because from then on there was a better balance which allowed Patricia Racette’s intermittently radiant Heliane especially, to cut through the wall of sound.

The role of the Stranger needs an heroic tenor capable of Tristan and that was not Michael Hendrick. Dry-voiced and effortful in Act I he relaxed to hit some top notes full on in the later Acts but the role was not for him. Regrettably too, Andreas Schmidt (Ruler) was a shadow of the singer who made such a wonderful Beckmesser at Bayreuth in the late 1990s; he seems to have very little breath control left and the hand in front of his mouth for much of the evening, hinted at his own embarrassment for his current vocal state. Willard White’s sonorous voice was wasted in the minor role as the Porter and Robert Tear gave a typically quirky account of the Blind Judge, but both these experienced artists must have had something better to do than this? Only the German mezzo, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen had the tonal qualities and attack needed to project the words fully to the audience. Many further back in the hall will have heard little of what was being sung most of the time by any of the principals. The best singing apart from Frau Hesse von den Steinen came from the German (basically amateur) chorus, the Europachorakadamie.

Mr. Jurowski obviously believed in what he was performing and took his very willing and accomplished orchestra along with him for the entire wild ride. Sadly – especially because I was looking forward to a new and potentially uplifting experience - I left the Royal Festival Hall feeling that my three-and-a half hours there was  not time well spent.

Jim Pritchard



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