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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Das Wunder der Heliane (1923-1927)
Opera in three acts after Die Heilige by Hans Kaltnecker
Annemarie Kremer – Heliane, wife of The Ruler
Ian Storey – The Stranger
Aris Argiris – The Ruler
Katerina Hebelková – The Messenger
Frank van Hove – The Gatekeeper
Nutthaporn Thammathi – The Sword Judge
Martin Petzold – The Young Man
Christoph Waltle, Pawel Trojak, Andrei Yvan, Jan Zadlo, Jin Seok – Judges
Seraphic Voices Choir, Opernchor of the Theater Freiburg, Extrachor of the Theater Freiburg, Members of the Freiburg Bachchor
Philharmoniches Orchester Freiburg/Fabrice Bollon
rec. 2017 (partly in concert), Rolf-Böhme-Saal, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany
NAXOS 8.660410-12 [3 CDs: 161:33]

Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) is an opera that has provoked strong opinions on both sides. To Korngold himself and to his biographer Brendan Carroll, it was the composer’s masterpiece. Others, as the original Berlin audience, have had much more negative opinions. What is certain is that the opera’s progress was hindered if not hobbled by a combination of bad libretto, historical events, and the unintended machinations of the composer’s critic father Julius Korngold. These factors conspired to make the opera an unknown quantity from the rise of Hitler until the Korngold revival of the 1970s and 1980s.

The plot, very briefly put, takes place in a despotic kingdom where The Ruler has basically forbidden ‘the sun to shine” because his wife Heliane (the only named character in the opera) does not love him. The Stranger is in prison for having brought a message of hope to the people, and is to die the next day. He is visited by The Ruler, who torments him, and later by Heliane, who tries to comfort him. The Stranger asks Heliane to disrobe for him, which she does, but she then goes to pray in an adjoining chapel. The Ruler returns and offers to pardon The Stranger if he will teach Heliane to love him. Heliane emerges from the chapel and the enraged Ruler orders Heliane to be brought before The Sword Judge to be tried for adultery.

In Act II, The Sword Judge and six other judges have been summoned to the Throne Room by The Messenger, who is not only The Ruler’s messenger but his former mistress. The Ruler formally accuses Heliane of adultery but the judges do not condemn her. The Ruler gives her a dagger with which to kill herself. The Stranger is brought in as a witness but demands to be left alone for a moment with Heliane. Once the two are alone, The Stranger begs Heliane to kill him. When she refuses, he stabs himself with the dagger. Heliane screams and all the others rush in. The Ruler realizes he can never discover the truth about Heliane and The Stranger. At this moment, The Messenger re-enters to announce that an angry crowd is coming to demand the release of The Stranger. The Ruler tells the crowd that their saviour is dead but that Heliane will raise him from the dead to prove she is innocent. At first horrified Heliane finally agrees.

After the Intermezzo which begins Act III, the action resumes in front of the Royal Palace with The Stranger lying on a bier and everyone waiting for Heliane’s miracle. The Messenger rouses the crowd to fury when Heliane seems to falter but The Ruler saves her from being burned alive. He later gives her to the crowd when she again rejects him. As Heliane is about to be burned at the stake, there is a tremendous thunder clap, and The Stranger arises from his bier as an otherworldly presence. Heliane runs to him but The Ruler stabs her. The Stranger banishes him from the kingdom and promises a new day for the people. In the last scene, Heliane and The Stranger enter heaven.

Obviously such a story has a variety dramatic and psychological problems, and trouble with credibility. The situation is not improved by the high-flown language of the original ‘mystery-play’ by Hans Kaltnecker nor by the “improvements” of the Korngold “house” writer Heinrich Müller. These factors would perhaps be enough to potentially restrict performances. Korngold’s immense scenic, choral and instrumental demands are a further impediment, as is the fact that the two main roles are absolutely punishing for the singers. In the first run of the opera in Vienna, six different sopranos had to take the role in rotation. In spite of all these issues and the ones mentioned previously, the opera was actually doing well in Germany and Austria until the advent of the Nazis.

But what about the music? While some devotees might not rate it as Korngold’s greatest work, it certainly comes close. The vocal writing, the orchestration, the character delineation, and the dramatic structure are all supreme Korngold. Special mention must be made of the choral writing. The composer had demonstrated ability in this area in Violanta and especially Die Tote Stadt, but in the five years between the latter and Heliane he had greatly matured. The choral writing, especially in Act III, is on a level that Korngold would never again be given the opportunity to equal.

The sound world of Heliane could be described as a combination of the erotic elements of Violanta and Die Tote Stadt (with the mystical elements of the latter thrown in) and the experiments with tonality seen in Korngold’s String Quartet No. 1 and, especially, the Piano Concerto of 1923. Heliane, the composer’s most advanced work, features large-scale use of bi-tonality and of constantly shifting tonal centers. This should create an almost atonal sound but Korngold is so deft that the sense of tonality is never lost. All of these features are combined seamlessly into a through-composed work with constant variation of the voluminous thematic material – not so much a traditional opera as a continuous vocal and orchestra work with comparatively few set arias or choruses.

In such a continuously flowing work, it is somewhat difficult to pick out individual highlights but one can point to the music for Heliane in Act I, Scene 4. It is both gentle and ecstatic – a perfect character portrait as well as prefigurement of the character’s personal transformation in the opera’s best-known section, the aria or scena “Ich ging zu ihm”. (This was the only part of the opera to survive in the repertoire when the rest of the work was forgotten.) Also notable is the Prelude to Act II, both a succinct summary of Act I and a musical preparation for the events to follow. In this section, Korngold’s combination of orchestration and thematic development reaches a new height. The extended Interlude which begins Act III is really a self-sufficient tone-poem of great intensity; it has been recorded as such (review). Finally, the last two scenes of Act III in toto must be considered a highlight as Korngold brings his thematic development and amazing orchestration to ever higher levels.

I mentioned above that the two principal vocal parts of Heliane are torturous if not brutal to sing. In this new recording, Annemarie Kremer is occasionally shrill but excels in the lyric moments. She certainly has both the heft and tenderness for the role of Heliane, not only in “Ich ging zu ihm” but in other sections such as “Steh auf” in Scene 5 of Act II. Ian Storey has sung the role of The Stranger before. This is evident from his first moments in Act I. He has a commanding presence throughout the opera. The Gatekeeper is sung by Frank van Hove with great sympathy in both Act I and Act III. Besides that of Heliane, the major female role in the opera is that of The Messenger, surely the strangest character in an opera with some strange aspects. Katerina Hebelková brings an almost hysterical intensity to the role, which is exactly right, but also lets some of the character’s other aspects come through. Nuttaporn Thammathi is competent as The Sword Judge but could be more effective. I have left Aris Argiris, who sings The Ruler, for last. What can one do with a role that is totally unsympathetic, except for a few moments in Act II? Argeris’s voice is frequently rough but he holds one’s interest dramatically from first to last; he makes for more than a typical operatic villain.

As can be seen from a look at the cast list, the choral forces for Heliane are vast. Bernhard Moncado has done an excellent job of preparation here – choral lines are well-defined and the various choral groupings well-differentiated. The Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg plays with great energy and skillfully negotiates Korngold’s harmonic requirements as well as putting forward the lyrical elements of the score. They are able advocates for this opera. Fabrice Bollon conducts forcefully and with a clean sound from all concerned. His pacing is sometimes suspect but he understands Korngold’s music in both its tender and powerful aspects. Bollon’s long association with the Freiburg orchestra comes to the fore as they follow him through all of Korngold’s tonal twists.

Inevitably one must compare this Heliane with the only previous version, the ground-breaking recording on Decca from 1992, still readily available, with John Mauceri conducting (review). The Decca version was a labor of love for those concerned, and Mauceri conducted with a warmth that Bollon cannot equal. The original also had a very distinguished cast. On the other hand, Bollon’s version maintains a greater level of dramatic tension throughout the opera and perhaps has a closer fusion of voices and orchestra.

In comparing the two versions of Heliane, one must also mention that the Decca set comes with the complete libretto and an introduction to the opera, really a monograph, by Brendan Carroll. The Naxos set has a synopsis of the events and an able, if not comprehensive, introduction by Sonja Kiefer-Blickensdorfer. Finally, there is the question of recording quality. The Decca set has an overall warmer sound than the Naxos but there have been a lot of advances in recording technology since 1992. The Naxos set brings out all the richness of Korngold’s orchestral writing, especially his “underpinnings” (harps and keyboards) and the off- and on-stage instrumentation. The soloists come through much more clearly than in the Decca set; I have already mentioned the richness of the choral parts.

To conclude, there is no clear choice between the two versions of Heliane. I would recommend those who already have the Decca set to keep it, as in some ways it cannot be bettered. For those new to the opera, or those who want more up-to-date recording, the Naxos set will be the obvious choice. True believers will want both.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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