Das Wunder der Heliane

Das Wunder der Heliane

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Premiere First Night: April 10 2010 Pfalztheater, Kaiserslautern
A Report by Brendan Carroll

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s fourth opera Das Wunder der Heliane enjoys rather a notorious reputation.

It was first presented in Hamburg on October 7 1927, and received a lavish production in Vienna just two weeks later, with two star casts announced to appear on alternate nights. Its arrival was awaited by press and public alike as if it were a film block-buster.In fact the second cast never appeared because tenor Alfred Piccaver walked out, unable to learn his difficult role. From that moment on, it was rumoured that the second premiere was cancelled owing to the opera’s failure, even though its first cast (Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura) had scored a spectacular success at the premiere.

A critical back-lash, stimulated by an ill-advised campaign against Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf! by Korngold’s father, the notorious critic Dr Julius Korngold, effectively ruined its chance of success. Of the 30 theatres that announced plans to stage it, only 12 eventually did so, and with the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Heliane (along with all of Korngold’s other music) was banned as entartete (or degenerate).

After the war, it took almost 40 years before Korngold’s most famous opera Die tote Stadt was revived, and nowadays, it has happily become a repertory opera once again with regular performances all over Europe. For Heliane, arguably Korngold’s most ambitious and striking work, revival has been almost impossible. A fairly disastrous production in Ghent (1970) only achieved three performances before it vanished. The successful revival of Die tote Stadt by Götz Friedrich in Berlin in 1983 prompted a fresh look at Heliane by John Dew, who presented it in Bielefeld in 1988, but major casting problems (once again, the tenor walked out at the dress rehearsal!) and a critical mauling, ended any hope of the work finally achieving theatrical success.

Until now. The Pfaztheater, Kaiserslautern has just undertaken the huge challenge of bringing Das Wunder der Heliane to life once more, in a striking new co-production (with the Nationaltheater, Brno) by Johannes Reitmeier and Daniel Dvorák. The task is a challenge because of the sheer scale of the work. Heliane requires very large forces with an orchestra of about 100 players that includes additional large off stage brass and percussion and no fewer than five keyboards, a large chorus with some of the most demanding choral writing in the repertory and five of the most formidably difficult solo parts in 20th century opera.

It also has a highly unrealistic libretto, based on an obscure mystery play – Die Heilige (The Saint) - by the little-known expressionist poet Hans Kaltneker, which makes it all the more difficult to convince a modern audience of its virtues. As a result, theatres have been deterred from attempting it. A major recording by Decca in 1993 did not encourage any new productions. Even the much-vaunted concert version mounted by the London Philharmonic, in London in 2007, failed to overcome its almost insuperable vocal demands.

So it was a brave undertaking by the creative team in Kaiserslautern to have another stab at bringing it to life. To my great surprise, they largely succeeded, chiefly by ignoring the more ludicrous aspects of the plot and cleverly reinterpreting the story while retaining the more mystical aspects.

The chief inspiration for the look and style of the production is Fritz Lang’s famous futuristic fantasy Metropolis ( one of the last great silent films released in 1927, the same year the opera premiered, and which has similarities of theme and plot). This works well for a story that has no time or place, and the result (with an eye-popping stage design by Daniel Dvorák) certainly matched the extravagance of Korngold’s musical canvas. Remarkably, given the demands on musicians and singers alike, the opera was done here almost complete (with just two small cuts in Act 2) which must also be a "first".

That said, the main problem was once again found to be in the casting – and left me wondering if it will ever be possible to find singers able or willing to tackle this work. Part of that problem is that few will undertake the burden of learning such demanding roles for just a few performances. In the case of Tote Stadt, the effort pays off, as that work is now constantly being revived. Heliane is almost unknown.

The main problem role - that for tenor, the Stranger – is a difficult vocal mix, part lyric, part helden tenor. As in Vienna 80 years ago, (and later, in Bielefeld) the tenor cast in Kaiserslautern walked out and so one must commend Norbert Schmittberg for agreeing to take it on with just eight weeks before the premiere! Under the circumstances, he did an admirable job but his voice showed the strain – most frequently in the high tessitura. There are so many high Bbs and Cs and I was not surprised that Mr Schmittberg opted for as many ossias as possible.

The Ruler is the villain of the piece, a dictator who has banned love and joy from his realm and who has imprisoned the Stranger for daring to spread such things, stirring up the enslaved populace. In this production, the Stranger is portrayed as a young revolutionary seeking not only to spread love and joy in a dark realm, but also to overcome its dictatorship. Wotanesque in range, the Ruler has the most dramatic and gripping music to sing, a true helden-bariton, and if the black American baritone Derrick Lawrence (with a voice more suited to Baron Ochs) wasn’t quite up to its demands, he certainly had presence, flanked by sinister, leather clad, masked henchmen and resplendently dressed to resemble infamous dictator, Idi Amin. At one point he even wears a uniform that was copied from one worn by Colonel Gadaffi!

The role of Heliane was created for legendary diva Maria Jeritza (alas, she never sang it) and requires a voice that is a combination of Salome and Turandot! She is the saintly queen with miraculous powers, owing to her still being a virgin (her marriage to the brutal Ruler has never been consummated) and she falls chastely in love with the young Stranger! Sally du Randt began nervously (as well she might) but grew in confidence as the evening progressed. Her big aria Ich ging Zu Ihm (I went to him) during the Act 2 trial scene is a notoriously difficult test piece, but she coped admirably, attacking the top Bb with the utmost security. The role of the Messenger, a former lover of the Ruler and now his chief spy, is a usually thankless supporting part. Here it was sung by a superb mezzo, Silvia Hablowetz who relished it and was given far more to do as a demonic, cruel woman with a thirst to be Queen herself.

The famous scene in Act 1 where Heliane disrobes for the condemned Stranger to grant him his final wish, was fortunately done without gratuitous nudity (she strips down to her négligée) and was all the more erotic for it, with both singers prone on the floor, the Stranger kissing her feet. The duet that followed was thus very difficult to sing in such a position but du Randt, especially, managed it extremely well.

In Act 2, Heliane is put on trial for her life, having been found inflagrante delicto as it were. The elderly Blind Judge is a character-tenor role and here, well taken by Hans-Jörg Bock, in scarlet red silk, and wheelchair-bound, assisted by 6 equally crippled judges in identical robes and weird make-up. The big crowd scenes that followed in Act 3 when the populace revolt, were expertly choreographed, and sung superbly by the chorus.

There were some luscious orchestral moments too, especially the huge peal of dissonant bells in Act 3 which was terrifically clangourous, as Heliane prepares to raise the Stranger from the dead (he has committed suicide) to prove her innocence. A number of changes to the story mostly worked well. In Act 2, the Messenger shoots the Porter dead after he has pleaded on behalf of Heliane (one of Korngold’s most beautiful baritone arias). Most significantly, in the final scene there is a real coup de théâtre, as the Ruler shoots himself in the head just as the first climactic cymbal crashes on the final chords, with the grinning Messenger (now wearing Heliane’s crown) standing in triumph over the dead queen. (In the original, the risen Stranger merely banishes him.)

If some of the stage action was clumsy, and in certain key roles, the opera was undercast, overall, this production (of a notoriously unperformable opera) was a remarkable success. The orchestra particularly, was outstanding. The conductor Uwe Sandner wisely followed Korngold’s demanding tempi, always keeping things moving and shaping each act like a symphonic movement. He also understood the need for balance, always reining in the huge sound to help the singers, while still giving full vent to Korngold’s thrilling climaxes. The composer’s own (recently discovered) hand-corrected score from 1927 (after the Vienna premiere), was used here for the first time in over 80 years.

Will Das Wunder der Heliane live again, and finally achieve the success for which Korngold hoped? If audience reaction is anything to go by, Heliane could indeed have a future, as the Kaiserslautern public clearly loved every moment. When I was young, it used to be said that Die Frau ohne Schatten was impossible to stage and yet, today it is a repertory staple. I feel that Heliane ought to have the same chance of revival, if only the world’s great singers will take it on, much as they eventually embraced FrOsch.

Overall, this was a brave gamble that paid off handsomely. If you want a rare opportunity to see perhaps the most extravagant operatic creation of the 1920s, this inventive new production will transfer to Brno in 2012