• OTF - Das Wunder der Heliane by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

    To round off our look at the operas of Erich Korngold, time for 1927 ‘s Das Wunder der Heliane (trans. The Miracle of Heliane), a work that is somewhat misunderstood and Is, I believe, the first domino in the overall set of events that will lead him to pursue his career in North-America.

    Heliane is a work that has its share of ”problems” shall we say – many of which have to do with the plot, some of the plot devices and the complexity of coming up with a stage production that can deliver those elements to an audience. One thing we must say, however, is that music isn’t one of the problems of this work. Or is it?

    I reserve my next OTF post for something of an opinion piece on avant garde music, and what it means to be the torch bearer for romantic music in the post-Rite of Spring era of Contemporary Music. The music establishment (if we can call it that) is a very fickle thing – whether we like it or not, the lens used to scrutinize music in the 1920-30 German world has to be distorted by the Second Viennese School, and some of the very risky experiments that include Stravinsky’s ground-breaking ballet. In such an atmosphere, what must that establishment think of Korngold’s music?

    According to what I read on the subject of Heliane, Korngold composed this new opera beginning in 1924. Before its premiere in 1927 Korngold claimed that this would be his magnum opus. Emboldened by the success of Die Tote Stadt and of some of his many revivals of Strauss and Lehar operettas, Korngold set the bar quite high for himself, and created a great sense of anticipation. At the world premiere in Hamburg the audiences and critics were unimpressed, feeling that Korngold's music held no new surprises and it was not modern.

    I don’t know that this is necessarily a justified criticism. The musical formula, it is true, remains true to Korngold’s arch-romantic style, a cross between Puccini and Richard Strauss, with what listeners will associate with “the Hollywood Sound”, the jugular-seizing, ornate sound of the great film scores of the early talkies (like those of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Lionel Newman).

    The public and critics may have viewed Helenia as a “flop”, but there is much evidence that there was admiration for the work, soprano Lotte Lehman even stating that the title role was her favourite

    Korngold and Hans Kaltneker

    The inspiration for Heliane is the drama called Die Heilige (trans. The Saint) written by the little-known poet Hans Kaltneker shortly before his early death from tuberculosis in 1919. Korngold had set some of Kaltneker’s poetry to music - Gerichtet! Gerettet! and Die Liebe in 1916-17 – and the poet had apparently secretly written his drama in the hope Korngold would set it to music and stage it.

    It’s the Plot, Stupid

    Why such a bum rap, then? Well you don’t have to look much further than the libretto by Hans Müller (who’d successfully collaborated with the teenage Korngold for Violanta). The opera revolves an improbable love triangle between a despotic ruler, a wandering stranger and the ruler’s wife. The Ruler is the poster child for “Happy Wife, Happy Life” – in his case, unhappy wife, unhappy life, and that means for everybody. When the happy-go-lucky wanderer steps into the Ruler’s realm, he has him arrested and condemned to death for – seemingly – just being a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.

    More than once during the opera, the Ruler indicates that all he wants is for his wife Heliane to love him. He’s willing to free the stranger if he helps convince Heliane to do so. Tough task – based on what we see throughout the opera, Mr. Ruler is ruthless, not exactly the kind of thing that turns on your average Jane.

    In a plot twist that defies logic, Heliane visits the condemned man, who strikes a chord with her. He wants to see her beautiful hair, her beautiful feet, how about her beautiful naked bodyWhy not, and she disrobes. After refuting his advances, she goes to a nearby chapel to pray for his soul – but remains stark naked in doing so. When we see her next, she comes face-to-face with the two men in her Birthday Suit. What’s a ruthless Ruler to think (other than jump to the obvious conclusion).

    When the opera resumes action, Mr. Ruler convenes a “show trial”, presided by his chief justice, who happens to be “blind”. The proceedings involve the trial of not only the Stranger, but of Heliane herself, accused of treason and adultery. But how can the Ruler make the case for adultery when there are only two potential corroborating witnesses? The Stranger, after a short conversation with Helenia, realizes that one way of putting an end to these shenanigans is for him to disappear, and he kills himself.

    Without a witness, the Ruler makes a snap decree: the only way Helenia can prove she is of a pure heart is if she brings the Stranger back from Death. If she fails, clearly she is not pure and saintly, and thus probably guilty and will be sentenced to death herself. Of course, before he sets his plan into effect, the Ruler gives her one last chance: Love will set you free.

    Talk about your linear logical thinking.

    Helenia is brought up to the Execution area and, Deus Ex Machina, a bolt of lightning hits the lifeless body of the Stranger who comes back to life. The furious Ruler takes his sword and stabs Helenia in the public square. At that moment, says the libretto, the Stranger and Helenia ascend into Heaven, as the Ruler endures the scorn of his subjects, losing their loyalty as a result.

    The full synopsis: http://www.korngold-society.org/synopsis3.html

    The Performance

    Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
    Das Wunder der Heliane, Op. 20
    Opera in Three Acts, German libretto by Hans Müller

    Ruler: Hartmut Welker
    Stranger: John David De Haan
    Heliane: Anna Tomowa-Sintow
    Blind Judge: Nicolai Gedda

    Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Radio Chorus
    Conductor: John Mauceri
    Venue: Jesus Christus Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin (02/1992)

    Performance URL: https://archive.org/details/04Act2
    Original Podcast: http://archive.org/details/FridayNightAtTheOpera082710
    This article was originally published in forum thread: OTF - Das Wunder der Heliane by Erich Wolfgang Korngold started by itywltmt View original post
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      This is a long and difficult, though very beautiful opera, indeed.

      It contains one of my favorite arias ever, "Ich ging zu ihm", (I Went to Him). It is located when Heliane relates in court what happened during his visit to the Stranger in the cell.

      The text of the aria, and an English translation, is on some of the youtubes that I will link below.

      It's a pretty sophisticated piece, based on material from the 'Procession' scene in Die Tote Stadt. It starts with a long arioso in D major, and then a modulation to F sharp major on the words 'Doch schön war der Knabe'. The melody, delicate and beautiful, is winding from the beginning of the aria, until it explodes in the high note at the end.

      There are several excellent recordings of the aria. My favourite is perhaps Renée Fleming's live at the Proms (also in her CD, 'The Age of the Diva'):

      but also the version from Lotte Lehmann (that sung the opera in Vienna) is outstanding:


      Or the one from Anna Tomowa-Sintow, extracted from the full recording of the opera, in the CD above:


      And even this hidden gem from German soprano Dagmar Schellenberger, released originally in East Germany:


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