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CD Review

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Das Wunder der Heliane

  • Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Heliane)
  • Hartmut Welker (the Ruler)
  • John David de Haan (the Stranger)
  • Reinhild Runkel (the Messenger-Girl)
  • René Pape (the Porter)
  • Nicolai Gedda (the Judge of the Sword)
Rundfunk Chor Berlin
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Mauceri
Decca 475827 168:00 3CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Kitsch – gorgeous, but kitsch.

Brendan G. Carroll, head of the Korngold Society, argues in his liner notes to this recording that Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane (the miracle of Heliane) sank into obscurity when a critical war arose between adherents of Heliane and those of Krenek's Johnny spielt auf. Reactionary forces put Korngold's opera against the barbarian horde of Modernity, represented by Krenek. The war was fought under false banners. While Korngold's opera contains some gorgeous music, it nevertheless fails as an opera, especially when compared to masterpieces roughly contemporary: Turandot, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Wozzeck, Sir John in Love, Intermezzo, Mahagonny, and Dreigroschenoper. Krenek's Johnny, rather impoverished musically, was a blip both in music history and in Krenek's catalogue. In other words, Johnny spielt auf and Das Wunder der Heliane weren't worth fighting over.

Several things contribute to Heliane's downfall, its libretto first among them. An uneasy feeling came over me when I looked over the cast of characters. For one thing, only one of them, Heliane, has a name. The rest are stuck with either symbolic type or job title. This usually means a dearth of real character and an excess of high-flying gas. In that regard the opera doesn't disappoint. The Stranger has been condemned to death for spreading joy in a joyless kingdom. The charges don't get any more specific than that. The Ruler, a miserable soul himself, can't stand to see other people happy. The Ruler's wife, Heliane, comes to visit the Stranger in his (surprisingly spacious) cell, because she's a compassionate lady. Immediately (and I do mean immediately) they fall in love. The Stranger talks her into letting him kiss her feet (I'm not making this up, you know) and finally into making love. Before they get much beyond voyeurism, the Ruler appears. Heliane hides. The Ruler proposes a deal to the Stranger: if the Stranger will tell the Ruler his secret of making people love him, the Ruler will let him go and give him money besides. It turns out that Heliane is a virgin. Her "innocence" intimidates her husband so that he can't bring himself to bed her. No wonder he's cranky. Heliane betrays herself in her state of semi-undress. The Ruler assumes The Worst and calls for a trial that very night. All this happens in the first act.

The second concerns the tribunal. The Ruler sends the Messenger (a former lover, and as bitter as the Ruler) to summon the judges. The judges assemble and learn, to their astonishment, that the defendant is their queen, now fully-clothed (thank goodness!) before them. The Ruler tries to extract a confession, but she refuses to speak. The judges demand her testimony. She tells them that she gave herself (not really) to the Stranger not out of lust, but out of pity. This only confuses them – why, I have no idea. The Ruler brings the Stranger before them for more testimony. Believe it or not, the Stranger convinces everybody to leave him alone with Heliane. This allows him to ask her to kill him, in order to stanch the Ruler's jealousy. She refuses. He takes a knife from her belt (what the hell was she doing with a knife in the first place), and fatally stabs himself. Heliane's shouts bring in the caboodle, and the Ruler (seconded by the Messenger) forces Heliane into a trial of her purity. If she can bring the Stranger back to life, she's good and true. After some pious demurs, she agrees. The third act consists of similar nonsense. The Ruler runs Heliane through, the spirit of the Stranger returns and unites with the Spirit of Heliane, the Ruler is spiritually defeated, etc., etc.

Many fine operas have stupid or clumsy librettos. They overcome them with convincingly dramatic music. Korngold's music may be beautiful, but it doesn't invest the story with any drama. Excepting the Ruler, almost none of these characters is worth spending time with, because they're nothing more than counters (and the Ruler just barely more) among a pattern of symbols and high-sounding sentimentality. Heliane is Innocence Outraged, the Stranger the Life Force, and so on. I don't object to the symbolism per se. After all, Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten is more complexly symbolic than this but the story actually shows us something about our own lives. In Heliane, nothing is really at stake.

I must admit that such insistence on sexual purity strikes me as morbid. I much prefer unapologetic decadence, because it's usually merely silly and pathetic, as opposed to actively evil.

As I've said, the music – with the exception of the Ruler's – isn't particularly dramatic. It neither reveals character nor helps push a story line. It's an opera not of plot and character but of situations, and fairly standard ones at that: love duets, mass choruses, jealousy arias, and so on. Korngold uses a huge orchestra in the pit and a substantial ensemble off-stage. Indeed, the opera comes across as a virtuoso demonstration of how to handle the post-Strauss orchestra rather than a dramatic work. There are no less than five keyboards in this score, not to mention triple winds, augmented brass, minutely-subdivided strings, harps, a couple of choruses, and perhaps a spare heckelphone or two. And a lot of it is playing most of the time. Everything becomes supersized – a love duet becomes an act of Tristan, the Stranger keeps threatening to turn into Siegfried, the Ruler Alberich, the Messenger Kundry. It's less an opera about people than an opera about opera. There's nothing in the entire work truly introspective or that reveals much psychology. The voices have to be big to begin with and to sing big, because that's the only way they can cut through the orchestra. One waits mostly in vain for some shade in this work. In short, Krenek's adherents didn't kill Heliane. Korngold thought it his finest achievement, but I think he was wrong. It's not a patch on the violin concerto, the Symphonic Serenade, or the Symphony, all written later, significantly, after Korngold's pioneer filmwork. His scoring shed a few pounds by then and in so doing became even more alluring.

Mauceri does his usual brutal job on the score, ignoring balances most of the time. It's the classical equivalent of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, and it lasts well beyond the three-minute pop-record limit. The singers do an heroic job shouting above steam-foundry noise levels. This takes a toll mainly on the Stranger, John David de Haan, who strangles in the vocal stratosphere. Tomowa-Sintow does the most subtle singing, since Heliane gets most of the rare quiet moments, and Hartmut Welker (the Ruler) the most dramatic.

The release is part of the London/Decca "Entartete Musik" (decadent music) series, dedicated to those composers killed, suppressed, or forced to flee by the Third Reich. It's a very interesting series. Despite my reservations against this work as an opera, I can't deny the sumptuousness of the music itself. It's just pure dazzle. If that's enough, I can recommend this set.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz