Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane
Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2018
Marc Albrecht, Christof Loy, Brian Jagde, Sara Jakubiak, Josef Wagner, Okka von der Damerau, Derek Wetton, Burkhard Ulrich
Naxos - Blu-ray
Like many other German and Austrian works that were categorised as 'degenerate' Entartete music by the Nazis in the 1930s, Korngold's early operas have as a consequence been consigned largely to obscurity. That is undoubtedly unfair, as the banning of such works had little to do with any kind of musical discrimination or value judgement and everything to do with whether a composer was of Jewish origin or had Jewish family connections. The neglect and loss of such works and any legacy they might have had could however also have as much to do with them being out of touch with changing musical tastes and the reality of people's lives on the ground.
The near-eradication of such works from music history may not be so much to do with the labelling of such music as degenerate as much as the operas and their themes being rather too 'decadent' in subject matter at a particular juncture in history when the world was about to plunge once again into war. Korngold's operas would certainly fit in with the decadent fantasies that seemed to flourish around this period. With fairy-tale worlds peopled by ambiguous figures and wrapped in lush chromatic orchestration, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold relished delving freely into a dark core of madness and forbidden lusts that had been unleashed post-war in the new century.
If they don't reveal any great psychological insights, works like Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Gezeichneten and of course Korngold's Die tote Stadt are nonetheless fascinating and exquisitely beautiful works that are very much the product of their (short-lived) time. So too it transpires is Das Wunder der Heliane (Heliane's Miracle), another Korngold masterpiece that has been largely neglected or deemed irrelevant to the development and progress of 20th century opera. Composed in 1927 with a trial at its centre, there's a sense even that Das Wunder der Heliane challenges itself in response to such conflicts, if only within the world of opera. Are you willing, it seems to ask, to sacrifice the beauty of Romance for a harsh, unyielding, joyless life without magic and love in it?
That seems to be the choice open to the Stranger, imprisoned for bringing a message of joy and light to a land where love and laughter are forbidden. The King, a stern and embittered figure who has never even known the love of the Queen, visits the Stranger in his cell to tell him that he will stand trial and face execution for his frivolity. The Queen, Heliane however proves to be more yielding to the Stranger's outlook, offering him her hair, her feet, her mouth and then her nakedness, but not her body. The King, going back to plead with the man to ask him how to win the love of the Queen, is outraged when he discovers her naked with the Stranger.
That's the first highly charged Act of Das Wunder der Heliane, the subsequent two Acts setting these forces against one another, leading to the death of the Stranger in Act II and his 'resurrection' at the miraculous intervention of Heliane, whose goodness and purity allows them to consummate their love in death in the finale of Act III. There doesn't appear to be much Wagner or Schopenhauer influenced philosophical underpinning to this pseudo-mystical Liebestod, just throwing out the idea of beauty, purity, love and light as the true enduring force in the world, even stronger than death.
If there's any way of making a credible case for this idea, it's in how Korngold smothers any philosophical shortcomings with persuasive swathes of strings, harps, 'seraphic voices' and all manner of celestial instrumentation. Who could resist or deny that there is indeed something miraculous and otherworldly in the music at least? If anyone can convince you of the argument of Das Wunder der Heliane, it's Korngold's orchestration at his most extravagant. It's rather like Strauss in this register - full-on, rich and complex, underscoring high emotion with soaring crescendos.
Like Strauss it also places exceptional demands on the singers, who not only have to be capable of the stamina to handle its technical complexities, keeping up with the continuous augmentation of musical emotions, but also rising above it and making it feel like it comes heroically from the heart. I haven't come across American tenor Brian Jagde before, but he is supremely capable of bringing all that to the role of the Stranger, in thrall to love and beauty. The rush of 'pure' lusts inspire him to soar to incredible heights in his Act I scene with Sara Jakubiak's Heliane that culminates in her revealing herself fully to him. The singing with the orchestration and the charge of the chaste eroticism reaches everything that Korngold could wish to achieve in a scene like this.
Christof Loy's direction doesn't try to compete with the charge that is already there, but his directions certainly help bring it about. It's almost impossible to sustain that kind of charge and tie it into further miraculous associations between love and death (although Tristan und Isolde - clearly the major influence on this work - of course proves otherwise), so Loy aims for a more sober set design, setting the drama in a courtroom inspired by Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, with dark classical wooden panelled walls and no unnecessary adornment or effects. As is often the case with Loy, he seems to give a problematic work the best possible presentation that highlights its strengths and mitigates against any weaknesses, and he does it with some style too.
Korngold's score also demands a certain flair and Marc Albrecht is an experienced conductor in this field. To judge purely on impact, the whole character of Korngold is there, distinct from Wagner, Strauss or Schreker, using unconventional instruments in an idiosyncratic way to achieve similar effects. The demands are not just on the principals then but the whole cast and there are consequently impressive performances from Josef Wagner as the distraught and furious King, Okka von der Damerau as the king's Messenger, Burkhard Ulrich as the Blind Judge and Derek Wetton suitably otherworldly as the Gatekeeper. This is a hugely impressive and revelatory production in every respect of a neglected Korngold rarity.
Recorded live at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2018, Das Wunder der Heliane is given a superb presentation on Blu-ray disc by Naxos. The HD image is good, but evidently the real benefit of the format is in how it gets across the power, complexity and detail of Korngold's majestic score in the high resolution DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. The spread of the surround track gives a more immersive experience, while the 2.0 track is more direct and powerful, particularly on headphones. Korngold specialist Brendan G. Carroll provides an introductory essay in the booklet, and also some items from his own archive on the disc, including an 8-minute recording from 1928 of the Act III Zwischenspiel and a picture gallery of rare photographs, posters and images. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.