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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Das Wunder der Heliane (1923-27) [2:41:33]
Annemarie Kremer – Heliane (wife of The Ruler)
Ian Storey – Der Fremde (The Stranger)
Aris Argiris – Der Herrscher (The Ruler)
Katerina Hebelková – Die Botin (The Messenger)
Frank van Hove – Der Pförtner (The Gatekeeper)
Nutthaporn Thammathi – Der bilde Schwertrichter (The Sword Judge)
Martin Petzold – Der junge Mensch (The Young Man)
Christoph Waltle, Pawel Trojak, Andrei Yvan, Jan Zadlo, Jin Seok – Richter (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. 20-26 July 2017 (partly in concert), Rolf-Böhme-Saal, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany
NAXOS 8.660410-12 [3 CDs: 161:33]

A remarkable child prodigy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold became a prominent Austro-German composer in the early decades of the 20th century, but his reputation suffered when he went to Hollywood in 1934 and wrote a string of popular film scores, largely ignoring opera and concert music for about a decade. Since the 1990s Korngold’s operas have gained in stature, receiving prestigious productions in the major houses and appearing on a number of recordings. His opera Die Tote Stadt and Violin Concerto are two works that had gained significant currency even by the 1970s, but little else in his oeuvre, including his very excellent Symphony in F-sharp major, had garnered much attention until relatively recent times.

Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), his fourth opera, is considered his most musically sophisticated – indeed, arguably his most musically advanced large work in any genre. Yet, it is tonal and stylistically nowhere near the sound world of the progressive or avant garde compositions of his day. But then its erotically charged libretto, with quasi-Christian religious elements mixed in, was another matter – it was genuinely bold, if almost totally removed from reality.

Fashioned by Hans Müller-Einigen, after a story by Hans Kaltneker called Die Heilige (The Saint), it takes place in an unnamed land ruled by a tyrant who forbids love in the country because his wife, Heliane (the only named character in the opera), will neither love nor submit to him. The time is unspecified, though one discerns intimations of a medieval setting. The opera opens as The Stranger, a charismatic figure who has brought brightness and hope to the country’s oppressed people by opposing the ban on love, is imprisoned on orders from the Ruler. The Ruler comes to his cell and condemns The Stranger to death. Heliane visits him and, attracted to him, disrobes completely, though she rejects his request to give herself to him. The Ruler learns of her behavior when she returns to the cell still naked and orders that she go before a panel of judges. Eventually, The Stranger takes his life in an effort to protect Heliane. The Ruler commands that Heliane, to prove her innocence, must raise The Stranger from the dead. She confesses only that she loved The Stranger and spurns the Ruler’s offer to save herself by loving him. She is taken to the stake by a mob, but thunder, illumination from the sky and a celestial chorus intervene: the Stranger rises in spirit form and Heliane hurries to him. The Ruler slays her, but is then stripped of all power by The Stranger and the people are given freedom and happiness. The Stranger raises Heliane up and the two ascend to heaven.

Yes, it is silly, but at least it has a message, if a rather timeworn one: love conquers all. But then others have posited a related but quite different and arguably tenable interpretation: Korngold and Müller-Einigen are taking a liberating view of human sexuality, declaring it a good and positive thing, not base or degrading as then regarded by many, both in religion and society. Because there is plentiful allusion to Christian belief in the story and text, one must observe that its use within the context of a sexually progressive story line is quite unusual for the time, especially considering that Korngold was a non-observant Jew. By the way, George Benjamin’s 2012 opera Written on Skin has a story that is strikingly similar to this one.

As for Korngold’s music, it is lushly and colourfully scored and features a prominent role for the chorus. It often has a fantasy-like character, especially in the First Act, not least because there is much writing for celesta and harp, as well as for upwardly soaring strings. With the onset of Act II, the music’s lush and warm character yields to an intensification and darkening in mood, the sense of a harsh reality vying with the more fantasy-like quality lingering from the First Act. Yet, there remains much lyricism and beauty in the music, even at times a playful character too. The best-known number from this opera comes from Act II, ‘Ich ging zu ihm’. Act III takes the work into yet another direction, with a lengthy gorgeous Interlude, followed by long choral passages in several ensuing numbers, almost as if the opera takes on an oratorio dimension. It also develops a more religious tone, both in the music and story. The closing duet (‘Am siebten Tore nun’) is beautiful but in aspiring to reach the heavens it struggles but never quite gets there.

Now having read all this, you will certainly wonder, is this opera a neglected masterpiece, a recently revived gem we should all get to know? Well, it qualifies as neglected alright, but as for its artistic ranking, I would say it could perhaps be called a minor masterpiece. You may assess it differently – some Korngold partisans would rank it more highly, though I think I’m being fair in placing it a couple of rungs below classic status.

As for the singers here, soprano Annemarie Kremer is fine in the role of Heliane, though in the higher ranges her sustained louder notes tend to exhibit a vibrato with a bit of wobble. Despite this pardonable flaw, she delivers a beautiful ‘Ich ging zu ihm’ and sings well throughout the opera. Ian Storey has a creamy tenor sound and is mostly effective in the role of The Stranger. Still, he does seem to struggle a bit in the early stages. The rest of the cast is convincing: notable are baritone Aris Argiris as The Ruler and alto Katerina Hebelková as The Messenger. Perhaps the strongest part of the performance though is the conducting of Fabrice Bollon. His phrasing and tempo choices throughout the opera impart a vitality and warmth perfectly appropriate to Korngold’s score. The Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra play with spirit and accuracy and the various choruses sing beautifully. Naxos provides vivid and well- balanced sound reproduction.

There is one competing recording of this opera currently available, a much older one (1992) on Decca led by John Mauceri. It was generally well received but, alas, I haven’t heard it and thus cannot make a comparison. I can say, however, that the Decca package contains a German-language libretto and English translation. This Naxos recording lacks a libretto altogether. It does offer a detailed synopsis, with references to track numbers that make the opera relatively easy to follow. That obviously doesn’t quite solve the problem, but luckily a Google search will find at least one link to the libretto. Still, that is not as convenient as having it at hand. Let me sum up by saying that if Korngold is an interest of yours and the libretto issue isn’t a significant liability, then obtaining this Naxos set will certainly yield many rewards. Korngold mavens will want both recordings in the knowledge there won’t likely be another new one for some time to come.

Robert Cummings

 

 



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