80 years after its first performances in Europe, Erich Korngold’s magnum opus, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) has received its UK premiere in the form of a concert presentation at the Royal Festival Hall.
Although not quite as significant an event as it promised to be on paper, the one-off performance made a fairly persuasive case for a full staging of the opera.
The former child-prodigy, Korngold, came across Hans Kaltneker’s Expressionist play a couple of years after the writer’s death in 1919, little knowing that the work had been written with the composer in mind. It tells of a kingdom where decent values have been banned and a messianic Stranger, cast into prison for spreading the word of love to the populace, is visited by the Ruler’s wife only for mutual love to explode between them.
The opera suffered more than most from a non-staged presentation. Setting the soloists behind, albeit above, the orchestra was a problem. It was probably unavoidable with such vast orchestral forces but it did render much of the text inaudible. In particular, tenor Michael Hendrick struggled and sounded strained much of the time. Similarly, a nonchalant, arms-folded Andreas Schmidt as the Ruler battled with the orchestra although American soprano Patricia Racette, as Heliane, the male fantasy figure of an angel prepared to strip naked, managed to cut through the density with a flood of melodious sound.
The role of the mysterious Kundry-like Messenger (Ursula Hesse von den Steinen) did not register as strongly as it does on the Decca recording and the group of judges, cramped into the choir seating between male chorus and soloists, similarly lacked dramatic presence. Willard White came off much better bringing customary empathy to the small role of the Porter, and another veteran, Robert Tear, brought a world of experience to the Blind Judge.
Other early 20th Century works flit through the mind as one watches the opera: Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten; Salome in the imprisoned prophet-like Stranger; a dash of Turandot in the angry crowd scenes. The influence of Wagner is never far from the surface. Sounding for most of its duration like one big climax, there are reflective moments delicate textures on flute, harp or tinkling percussion but they are few and far between and, over a long three hours, there is just too much lush orchestration and grandiose sentimental emoting. Korngold’s subsequent career as a highly successful composer of Hollywood film scores hangs heavily over the proceedings.
Comparing Heliane’s “Ich ging zu Ihm” to Isolde’s Liebestod, as Korngold biographer Jessica Duchen does in the programme notes, seems an over-enthusiastic appraisal. Although sung delightfully by Renee Fleming at this year’s proms, this the most famous aria of the piece, then as now did not warrant such extravagant comparison.
Things get interesting in the middle of Act 3, where Korngold almost achieves atonality, before the work descends into a very drawn-out ending, with the happy couple eventually rising transfigured to heaven. Overall, this is a work that is long on earnestness and short on substance, lacking enough real depth to hold the attention for its full span, at least within the limitations of a concert performance. Staging, especially if heed is paid to the Expressionistic origins, might remedy this.
Vladimir Jurowski conducted the LPO with characteristic passion and precision and gave as convincing an account of the score as we might expect. Das Wunder der Heliane is never likely to become a part of any opera house’s standard repertoire but, for all its shortcomings, could make a welcome alternative to the usual fare trotted out season after season.