About this Recording
2.110584-85 - KORNGOLD, E.W.: Wunder der Heliane (Das) [Opera] (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2018) (NTSC)
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Das Wunder der Heliane (Opera in three acts, Op. 20) – Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Operatic Masterpiece

 

Of all the major operas to be premiered in the 1920s (and these included Puccini’s Turandot, Berg’s Wozzeck, Strauss’s Intermezzo, Hindemith’s Cardillac and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg) none was as hotly anticipated as Das Wunder der Heliane by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, in 1927.

The reasons were largely to do with the very public scandal surrounding its premiere, driven by the machinations of Korngold’s father Dr Julius Korngold, the irascible, ultra-conservative and much-feared chief music critic of Vienna’s leading newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse.

For months prior, he had waged a public campaign against composer Ernst Krenek and his so-called ‘jazz opera’ Jonny spielt auf which, following its sensational premiere in Leipzig (10 February 1927) was to receive its first Vienna production just a few weeks after Heliane—something Dr Korngold (who loathed the work) tried unsuccessfully to prevent, using influence on his old friend, Dr Franz Schalk (then director of the Vienna Opera) to attempt to have the production cancelled. He failed. The cash-strapped opera management desperately needed a popular box office success and Schalk was overruled. In the event, Jonny spielt auf triumphed. With typical Viennese wit, Franz Schalk drily observed: ‘The box office takings exceeded my direst expectations!’ This did not stop Dr Korngold from continuing his vitriolic campaign in the press against Krenek.

As a result, the battle between the various factions (both for and against Korngold or Krenek) completely polarised opinion. It was an extraordinary situation that absorbed the opera-going public, engaged all the leading newspaper caricaturists and cartoonists of the time and was even used by the Austrian Tobacco Company, which produced two new ‘rival’ cigarettes—the Jonny (a cheap, unfiltered smoke) and the Heliane, a very expensive luxury cigarette with mauve paper, an exotic mouthpiece filter shaped like a rose petal, and packaged in elegant, special gold tins.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold worked on Heliane for six years and always regarded the completed score as his greatest work. Based on an obscure mystery play (Die Heilige – ‘The Saint’) by Hans Kaltneker (1895–1919), a little-known Romanian-Austrian writer and poet who admired Korngold’s music, the opera is perhaps the composer’s most extravagant and dramatic creation for the stage.

Scored for a very large orchestra and chorus, including three flutes, piccolo, cor anglais, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns in F, three trumpets in C, three trombones, tuba, three sets of timpani, a huge battery of percussion including a full set of bells, two harps, full strings, guitar, an off-stage chorus of women’s voices (the seraphic voices above, which comment on the action), an offstage brass group of three further trumpets in C, three trombones and six fanfare trumpets; Heliane requires over a hundred players in all. There are six major roles and seven smaller roles.

This huge ensemble is used masterfully and offers a musical synthesis of Korngold’s richly Romantic style, the extravagant and highly detailed orchestration supported by no fewer than five keyboards (piano, organ, celeste, harmonium and the rarely used glockenklavier or ‘bell piano’—similar to a celeste but tuned an octave lower) all of which provide the underpinning of the advanced, post-Straussian harmony and gives the typical Korngold ‘sweep’. Throughout this very demanding score, every single instrument in the orchestra is treated as a virtuoso.

The intensity of the music with its intoxicating effects of multi-glissandi, arpeggios, its driving, propulsive rhythms and often relentlessly demanding tempi with frequent and sudden changes of metre, makes Heliane one of the most difficult operas to perform and conduct, and an often overwhelming musical experience for audiences, its arc of climaxes building from one act to the next.

Following a successful world premiere in Hamburg on 7 October 1927, preparations gathered pace in Vienna where two all-star casts had been assembled, for two premieres on consecutive nights.

The role of Heliane was originally conceived for the legendary diva Maria Jeritza, Vienna’s first Turandot, who had earlier scored huge success in the double role of Marie/Marietta in Korngold’s phenomenally successful Die tote Stadt as well as in the title role of his second opera, Violanta which he composed at the age of 17.

In the end, the Vienna premiere date of October 29 was too late—Jeritza had already sailed for New York a month earlier, where she was contracted by the Metropolitan Opera and she never sang Heliane. It was to be her archrival, Lotte Lehmann, Vienna’s other leading diva, who would star in the Vienna premiere, opposite the spectacularly handsome new star tenor, Jan Kiepura, as the young, condemned Stranger.

Vienna’s other leading lyric tenor, Alfred Piccaver, was to have taken the role of the Stranger in the second premiere, but he could not learn the difficult role in time and withdrew a few days before, whereupon the performance was cancelled, thereby encouraging the false rumour that persists to this day that the opera was a failure (it actually achieved 27 performances in Vienna in the first season, and 25 in Hamburg).

Originally, 18 theatres had announced plans to stage the work but of these, only nine presented it. These included Lübeck, Breslau (today, Wrocław) Munich, Plauen, Danzig (today, Gdańsk), Schwerin, Chemnitz, and Nuremberg.

In April 1928, it reached Berlin, which was perhaps the most decisive of all the early productions. Bruno Walter was to conduct and the star cast included Grete Stückgold, Hans Fidesser, Emil Schipper and Alexander Kipnis. One of the greatest stage designers of that time, Oskar Strnad, created the weird, surrealist production.

Yet the German critics, angered by Korngold’s father, his vicious campaign against Krenek and his attempts to influence public opinion, took their revenge on his son and vilified the work, particularly when, as was later recalled by Korngold’s wife in her memoirs, the tenor Fidesser, after a silly temperamental spat with Bruno Walter at the dress rehearsal, deliberately sang his part sotto voce on the first night, thereby robbing the performance of much of its vitality and impact.

However, perhaps the real cause of the critical invective was the improbable libretto (by Hans Müller-Einigen) and the fact that Heliane was so completely out of step with the new, prevailing fashion for Zeitoper (‘Opera of the time’), a fate that similarly befell Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena also premiered later that same year.

The opera-going public were no longer interested in adult fairy tales or epic, transcendent love stories. The new trend for Neue Sachlichkeit (‘new objectivity’) of contemporary themes, replete with jazzy instrumentation, novel effects and modern characters who listen to the radio, drive fast cars, use the telephone on stage and indulge in all manner of excess, were now suddenly all the rage. Korngold’s opera was out of step with the time.

By 1931, Das Wunder der Heliane had all but disappeared from the repertory and in 1933, with the coming of the Nazis to power in Germany, all of Korngold’s music was removed from the repertory altogether. Das Wunder der Heliane was to be forgotten until, in 1970, the Royal Flemish Opera in Ghent decided to revive it. This was unfortunately unsuccessful—the major Korngold renaissance had yet to begin—and it languished further until 1988 when Bielefeld mounted a production. Again, problems with casting (the tenor cancelled at the dress rehearsal) and a theatre far too small to do it justice, prevented any chance of lasting success.

Then in 1993, under the direction of producer Michael Haas, Decca made the landmark world premiere recording of Heliane as the first of its major series entitled Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate Music’, recalling the infamous Nazi exhibition at Dusseldorf in 1938), pairing it with its original operatic rival from 1927—Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. This major release was critically acclaimed internationally and the opera began its very slow return to the repertory.

Concert performances at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (1995) and London’s Royal Festival Hall (2007) followed, and in 2010–12, the Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern mounted a coproduction with Brno which enjoyed greater success. In January 2017, a well-received concert staging returned Heliane to Vienna for the first time in 90 years, before concert performances in Freiburg and a new production, again at Ghent, appeared the same year. Finally, in March 2018, the opera returned to Berlin for the spectacularly successful production by Christof Loy.

With a definite stylistic nod to Billy Wilder’s famous film Witness for the Prosecution, the more improbable aspects of the opera plot were removed or softened, by setting the story in a single, unemotional, oak panelled courtroom set. By focussing attention firmly on the human drama, this made Korngold’s hyper-Romantic score even more penetrating.

Heliane is dressed and coiffed to resemble Marlene Dietrich (the star of Wilder’s film) while her husband, the vicious Ruler, is revealed to be a pathetic, sexually impotent man who craves the love of his wife. His every action is driven by this need, yet his sterile marriage is doomed never to be consummated. The motivation for his brutal deeds is now offered as an effective subtext, that makes the central drama far more believable.

The young Stranger, a curious messianic Christ-like figure in the Kaltneker/Müller original, is presented as an attractive, sexual liberator. Ultimately, Christof Loy understood that this opera is really all about sex and its transformative power in conquering repression and suppression in the bleak realm of the Ruler’s kingdom, something barely hinted at in the original libretto. That Heliane was composed during the very first years of the young Korngold’s happy marriage to Luise Sonnenthal (much of it actually during his honeymoon!) is audibly apparent in every passionate, erotic bar of the score. To underline the point, Korngold dedicated the work to his young bride.

Indeed, there is not one big love duet in the opera but three, one in each act, and the set-piece aria Ich ging zu Ihm (‘I went to him’), which Heliane sings in the trial scene in Act II (memorably recorded by Lotte Lehmann in 1928), is perhaps Korngold’s finest, an intensely erotic declamation of love by Heliane, while her words simultaneously deny it. Its music, which climbs chromatically, achieves much the same effect of mirroring sexual satisfaction and release, as does the famous Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Perhaps the underlying theme of Heliane is the power of human love being able to transcend and survive death. This belief in love continuing beyond the grave, appealed very strongly to Korngold. His song cycle Abschiedslieder and his opera Die tote Stadt both explore similar themes.

By 1944, living in enforced exile in Hollywood, he returned to this subject again in what was to become his own favourite among his film scores, for the film Between Two Worlds—an updated version of the play Outward Bound by Sutton Vane, which dealt with a group of people on their way to the afterlife, and in particular, a young couple who have committed suicide because they cannot bare to be separated and who are finally given a second chance at life. Significantly, this intensely Romantic film score contains liberal quotations from Heliane, especially the beautiful aria sung by the Gatekeeper in Act III.

Although Das Wunder der Heliane may have languished, forgotten for almost a century, its overpowering emotional impact and unbridled, bi-tonal lyricism now strikes a resonant chord with audiences. This may explain the unprecedented 20-minute ovation it received at the premiere of this new production in Berlin.

Thanks to this recording, the unique Heliane experience can now be enjoyed by everyone and its ongoing future on the stage finally seems assured.

Brendan G. Carroll, 2018

Brendan G. Carroll is the author of The Last Prodigy considered to be the definitive biography of Korngold (published by Amadeus Press, 1997), now available in a revised German translation (published Böhlau-Verlag, Wien 2012)

Synopsis

Act I

In a land where laughing and loving is forbidden, a nameless Stranger awaits his sentence. He had come to the land to spread his message of joy and light among the people. The Ruler himself ordered his arrest and immediate trial. A Gatekeeper informs the Stranger that on that very night someone will come to tell him the verdict. This person turns out to be the Ruler himself, who tells the Stranger that he will be executed the following morning. In godforsaken solitude, the Stranger waits for morning to come with dread. Then a woman comes to him to comfort him in the final hours before his death. She reveals that she is the queen, the wife of the tyrannical Ruler. The Stranger is mesmerised by her angelic appearance. She too cannot resist his tender poetry. Both realise that this feeling blossoming unexpectedly between them cannot last long, since death awaits the stranger in the early morning hours. Without hesitation, Queen Heliane does what the Stranger yearns for in the last hours before his execution. She allows him to touch her hair and her bare feet, and finally to look at her naked body too. When he asks her to surrender herself to him on this night, she refuses. She says she wants to pray for him and herself and disappears into the nearby chapel. In that moment, the Ruler returns again and makes the Stranger an unusual offer: he, the Ruler, loves Heliane, his wife, but she will not accept his love. He, the Stranger, is someone who can make an entire people love him. Therefore, it should be very easy for him to soften cold Heliane, so that he, the Ruler and her husband, can then step in and finally conquer Heliane’s body, which up until now she has refused to allow him to do. He has never even seen her naked. Heliane hears her husband’s words from the next room and, horrified, orders him to be silent. Only then does she remember her nakedness. The Ruler immediately accuses her of being unfaithful to him with the Stranger and has her arrested. He will put his love on trial that very night.

Act II

With the help of a female Messenger, (with whom he once spent a night of lust), the Ruler convenes a court just a few hours after his wife’s arrest, a court that is qualified to pronounce the country’s usual sentence for adultery: death. The Blind Sword Judge and associate Judges are shocked when they realise that it is the queen herself who is supposed to have committed adultery. Heliane tries to explain to the court that it was not lust that drove her to show herself to the stranger naked. She felt empathy for his fear of death, for his pain and that is why she did what she did. And therefore, she claims, she is innocent and pure. Neither the Ruler nor the Judges can understand what she says. She also leaves it completely unclear whether she actually had sexual relations with the Stranger. The Stranger himself, whom the Ruler has let live for now, is then led in to testify. The Stranger manages to convince the Executioner to allow him to be alone with Heliane for a moment before he is questioned further. The Stranger offers Heliane his life. She should kill him in order to appease her husband’s hatred and save her own life. Heliane cannot accept this deal. The Stranger then kisses her and kills himself in front of her. The Ruler and the Judges rush back into the court after Heliane cries for help. In despair, the Ruler throws himself on the dying Stranger. He realises that he will never know the truth about what happened that night between him and his wife. The Stranger has barely just fallen down dead, when the Messenger informs them that the entire people are rebelling at the palace gates. The people have heard that the man who proclaimed joy and light has been sentenced to death. They want to see him alive.

The Ruler opens the gates and lets the people in. He too would like to see the Stranger alive again, so that he might know the truth after all. He shows the people the dead Stranger and tells them that he has killed himself out of love for his wife. Yet, he claims, his wife is pure and therefore is in the position to subject herself to a trial from God. The people and the Ruler virtually force her to undertake the so-called ‘bier trial’. After an internal struggle, she convinces herself to do it: yes, in the early morning hours, she will bring the dead man back to life in front of all the people.

Act III

The people are waiting impatiently at night for the bier trial to be carried out. Hopes that many things will change in the land if Heliane manages to bring the light-bringer back to life alternate with doubts whether Heliane might not just be an ordinary woman, who does not possess these powers and did give herself to the Stranger for a night after all. Heliane too endures a night full of fear and secretly hopes that she will manage to carry out the miracle. When she is finally standing at the bier, she is not able to utter the words: ‘Arise and transform’, since to her the very words seem blasphemous. She revokes everything she has said before and declares that it was love that brought her to the Stranger. The love that every woman feels and should feel. At first the Ruler tries to save Heliane from the people, who immediately turn into an angry mob who want to execute her, and he even offers to execute every one of them, if only she would confess to him. However, she rejects this blood sacrifice and accuses her husband of mass murder in front of everyone. The people, by now blindly supporting the Ruler, want to attack her. At that very moment, the miracle occurs. The Stranger arises from the dead and pronounces his judgement. Now the people see Heliane as a saint and accept him as supreme judge. He prepares Heliane for the fact that he cannot protect her from death. This is the final trial she must face in her life. Shortly afterwards, the Ruler, overcome by jealousy, stabs his wife with a dagger. The Stranger banishes the Ruler, pardons the Messenger and releases the people with the prospect of a kingdom filled with happiness and freedom. He and Heliane leave the mortal world behind, a world caught in an endless cycle of sin, judgement and atonement.

Christof Loy
English translation: Anna Galt

Bonus

Das Wunder der Heliane: Zwischenspiel

Recorded in 1928 by Odeon Records in Berlin, featuring the ‘Grand Symphony Orchestra, Berlin’ which was a studio orchestra drawn from many of the musicians who performed Korngold’s opera at the Berlin Städtische Oper.

The conductor, Dr Frieder Weissmann (1893–1984) was Odeon’s ‘house conductor’ from 1920 until 1933, as well as conducting the Dresden and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras and the Concertgebouw. A pupil of Walter Braunfels and Max von Schillings, he made over 2000 recordings for Odeon, but, being Jewish, was forced to leave Germany, following the election of Hitler in 1933.

This very rare recording in superb sound, provides a unique snapshot of the performance style of Korngold’s opera at the time of its first production in Berlin. In 1934, the recording was withdrawn from the Odeon catalogue and, apart from a very brief vinyl reissue in 1960 on the obscure Ritornello label, it has never been re-released in any format. (Recording courtesy of The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.)

Brendan G. Carroll


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