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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957) Das Wunder der Heliane (1923-27)
Sara Jakubiak – Heliane (wife of The Ruler); Brian Jagde – Der Fremde (The Stranger); Josef Wagner – Der Herrscher (The Ruler); Okka von der Damerau – Die Botin (The Messenger); Derek Welton – Der Pförtner (The Gatekeeper); Burkhard Ulrich – Der blinde Schwertrichter (The Blind Sword Judge); Gideon Poppe – Der junge Mensch (The Young Man); Andrew Dickinson, Dean Murphy, Thomas Florio, Clemens Bieber, Philipp Jekal, Stephen Bronk (Six Judges); Sandra Hamaoui, Meechot Marrero (Seraphic Voices)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Marc Albrecht
Stage Director: Christof Loy
Set Designer: Johannes Leiacker
Costume Designer: Barbara Drosihn
Lighting Director: Olaf Winter
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, Germany, 30 March & 1 April, 2018
Bonus track – (1928 recording from Odeon Records of Act III Zwischenspiel and picture gallery)
Sound formats: PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1, Picture Format: NTSC 16:9
Subtitles: German (original language), English, Korean, Japanese NAXOS DVD 2.110584-85 [2 discs: 167 mins]
Late in 2018 Naxos released a 3-CD set of Korngold’s rarely heard opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which I reviewed in January this year. In that piece I advised Korngold mavens to acquire the recording, writing “there won’t likely be another new one for some time to come.” Well, famous last words—not only is there a new one, but it’s also on the Naxos label! I was amazed when I saw this new production at their website not long after that review appeared. I must wonder now if Naxos had released that CD performance as a sort of appetizer for this grander video account. Not that the CD set was a weak effort - indeed, it was quite good - but this new DVD version (it’s also available on Blu-ray) is even better.
Heliane scored considerable success at its 1927 Hamburg and Vienna premieres but was received coldly in Berlin. Yet nine opera houses staged it before it finally faded from the repertory, its last performances coming in the early 1930s. The Nazis banned Korngold’s works in 1933, owing to his Jewish ethnicity, and the following year the composer traveled to Hollywood, where he would produce a number of popular film scores, but little in other genres of music. Except for his opera Die Tote Stadt and Violin Concerto, his music was largely ignored until the late 20th century. Die Katrin, another fine Korngold opera, appeared to considerable acclaim in 1998 on a 3-CD set from CPO. Other works of his, including the Symphony in F sharp major, have been performed and recorded with more regularity.
Heliane is based on a story by Hans Kaltneker called Die Heilige (The Saint), from which Hans Müller-Einigen drew the libretto. As I pointed out in my first review, the story is a bit silly. Yet, it has a message, if hardly a new one: love conquers all. The opera is set, presumably in medieval times, in a nameless kingdom ruled by a tyrant who doesn’t allow any of his subjects to experience love because his beautiful wife, Heliane (the only character in the story with a name) rejects his love. The Stranger appears at the outset of the opera as a charismatic figure opposing the ban on love and giving hope to the people. He is imprisoned on orders from the Ruler, who comes to his cell and then sentences him to death.
When Heliane visits him in prison, she is attracted to him and he to her. He asks that she disrobe, which she does but stops short of acceding to his request to give herself to him. The Ruler learns of all this when he goes to the cell again and Heliane returns still naked. She is tried before a panel of judges. The Stranger is brought in to testify, but is then allowed a moment to be alone with Heliane. He kisses her and then takes his life to protect her. The Ruler, having the support of a mob of rebels, commands that Heliane, to prove her innocence, must raise the Stranger from the dead to satisfy the test called the ‘bier trial’. At the Stranger’s bier she cannot say the words “arise and transform,” feeling them blasphemous, but states instead that she loved the Stranger. The mob takes her to the stake, but then the miracle occurs: the Stranger rises. Heliane goes to him but the Ruler slays her. He is then banished and stripped of all power by the Stranger. The people can now enjoy freedom and happiness. The Stranger raises Heliane up and the two ascend from mortal life into brightness.
As mentioned above Korngold was Jewish, but lapsed in his faith. Still, it is somewhat odd that this opera would have certain Christian elements present in the story. Odder still is the mixture of those aspects with a then-progressive view of human sexuality. Had the opera’s popularity grown further and performances of it begun appearing across Europe and the Americas in the 1930s, it surely would have been banned in certain locations—or features of the story changed at the very least.
In any event the production at hand is a reasonably good one. The story is updated to modern times in the costuming. Most of the people, including the mob, wear white shirts, tie and black business suits and the like, thus appearing in more formal attire than the Ruler: he wears a black shirt and never a tie. Sets are sparse, with elongated steps leading to a platform at the rear and on both the left and right sides of the stage. There are ornate wooden paneled walls with large windows surrounding the stage and a table in the center. This serves as the scenery in all three acts. Lighting is fine throughout the opera, never overly bright or dark.
As for the performances by the singers, both the major and minor roles are well sung. American soprano Sara Jakubiak sings Heliane with passion and commitment and in ravishing vocal tones. Try her Act II number, the most famous one from this opera by the way, Ich ging zu ihm… (track 6, disc 2), to sample her superior artistry. She is stunning throughout, even if she occasionally comes across as slightly underpowered in a few places, mainly due to Korngold’s often sonorous orchestration. Indeed, she subtly and wisely varies her dynamics and almost always does so effectively.
American tenor Brian Jagde as the Stranger and Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner as the Ruler both have fine voices and are excellent in their dramatic skills. Try their First Act encounter in the consecutive numbers Dich, der das Lachen angezündet im Lande (track 5, disc 1) and Wie? Sterben? when the Ruler sentences the Stranger to death and the latter then pleads desperately for his life. Both are thoroughly compelling here, bringing high drama to the opera early on. Another outstanding scene is the Stranger’s Act II death scene (Tötet mich!--track 9, disc 2) with Heliane: it is filled with passion and tension as Jagde meets every vocal and dramatic expectation, as does Jakubiak, but this is more his moment than hers. Derek Welton as the Gatekeeper is quite fine too, and the rest of the cast, as earlier suggested, are more than adequate. The chorus sings splendidly too.
On the orchestral side of things, Marc Albrecht conducts the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin with an insightful grasp of Korngold’s rich post-Romantic idiom. His phrasing is consistently sensitive to the emotional flow of the music and his tempo choices are judicious, never going to an extreme. Coincidentally, this new recording has a very similar overall timing for the opera to the earlier Naxos issue.
Korngold’s opera is scored for a very large orchestra (over one hundred players), which includes five keyboard instruments—piano, organ, celeste, harmonium and the rarely encountered glockenklavier. The orchestration is masterly throughout and the opera is certainly worth knowing if you haven’t yet heard it. In my earlier review I think I was fair in my assessment of the work’s artistic ranking when I called it a “minor masterpiece”, and I stand by that evaluation now. I hope that verdict is not viewed as a case of damning with faint praise because Heliane is a very fine piece, as good or perhaps even better than some of the more popular operas in the repertory.
The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all first rate on this DVD set. A bonus track contains an audio recording from a 1928 performance of the Zwischenspiel preceding Act III conducted by one Dr. Frieder Weissmann, and on another track there is also a photo gallery, which among much else contains many photos of the composer. Album notes by Brendan Carroll, noted Korngold biographer and scholar, are very informative. If you’re a Korngold admirer and even if you possess the very fine earlier Naxos CD set, you’ll still want this new recording, not just because the performances and production are superb but since it is the only available video recording of the opera. This time I won’t predict that another won’t likely be coming soon, but I’ll be at least a little surprised if it happens!