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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Korngold's Miracle

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 16:31:30 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Das Wunder der Heliane

*  Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Heliane)
*  Hartmut Welker (the Ruler)
*  John David de Haan (the Stranger)
*  Reinhild Runkel(the Messenger-Girl)
*  Rene Pape (the Porter)
*  Nicolai Gedda (the Judge of the Sword)

Rundfunk Chor Berlin
RSO Berlin/John Mauceri
Decca 475827 1 Total time: 168:00 (3 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Kitsch - gorgeous, but kitsch.

Brendan G. Carroll, head of the Korngold Society, argues in his liner
notes to this recording that Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane
(the miracle of Heliane) sank into obscurity when a critical war arose
between adherents of Heliane and those of Krenek's Johnny spielt auf.
Reactionary forces put Korngold's opera against the barbarian horde of
Modernity, represented by Krenek.  The war was fought under false banners.
While Korngold's opera contains some gorgeous music, it nevertheless
fails as an opera, especially when compared to masterpieces roughly
contemporary: Turandot, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Wozzeck, Sir John in
Love, Intermezzo, Mahagonny, and Dreigroschenoper.  Krenek's Johnny,
rather impoverished musically, was a blip both in music history and in
Krenek's catalogue.  In other words, Johnny spielt auf and Das Wunder
der Heliane weren't worth fighting over.

Several things contribute to Heliane's downfall, its libretto first
among them.  An uneasy feeling came over me when I looked over the cast
of characters.  For one thing, only one of them, Heliane, has a name.
The rest are stuck with either symbolic type or job title.  This usually
means a dearth of real character and an excess of high-flying gas.  In
that regard the opera doesn't disappoint.  The Stranger has been condemned
to death for spreading joy in a joyless kingdom.  The charges don't get
any more specific than that.  The Ruler, a miserable soul himself, can't
stand to see other people happy.  The Ruler's wife, Heliane, comes to
visit the Stranger in his (surprisingly spacious) cell, because she's a
compassionate lady.  Immediately (and I do mean immediately) they fall
in love.  The Stranger talks her into letting him kiss her feet (I'm not
making this up, you know) and finally into making love.  Before they get
much beyond voyeurism, the Ruler appears.  Heliane hides.  The Ruler
proposes a deal to the Stranger: if the Stranger will tell the Ruler his
secret of making people love him, the Ruler will let him go and give him
money besides.  It turns out that Heliane is a virgin. Her "innocence"
intimidates her husband so that he can't bring himself to bed her.  No
wonder he's cranky.  Heliane betrays herself in her state of semi-undress.
The Ruler assumes The Worst and calls for a trial that very night.  All
this happens in the first act.

The second concerns the tribunal.  The Ruler sends the Messenger (a
former lover, and as bitter as the Ruler) to summon the judges.  The
judges assemble and learn, to their astonishment, that the defendant is
their queen, now fully-clothed (thank goodness!) before them.  The Ruler
tries to extract a confession, but she refuses to speak.  The judges
demand her testimony.  She tells them that she gave herself (not really)
to the Stranger not out of lust, but out of pity.  This only confuses
them - why, I have no idea.  The Ruler brings the Stranger before them
for more testimony.  Believe it or not, the Stranger convinces everybody
to leave him alone with Heliane.  This allows him to ask her to kill
him, in order to stanch the Ruler's jealousy.  She refuses.  He takes
a knife from her belt (what the hell was she doing with a knife in the
first place), and fatally stabs himself.  Heliane's shouts bring in the
caboodle, and the Ruler (seconded by the Messenger) forces Heliane into
a trial of her purity.  If she can bring the Stranger back to life, she's
good and true.  After some pious demurs, she agrees.  The third act
consists of similar nonsense.  The Ruler runs Heliane through, the spirit
of the Stranger returns and unites with the Spirit of Heliane, the Ruler
is spiritually defeated, etc., etc.

Many fine operas have stupid or clumsy librettos.  They overcome them
with convincingly dramatic music.  Korngold's music may be beautiful,
but it doesn't invest the story with any drama.  Excepting the Ruler,
almost none of these characters is worth spending time with, because
they're nothing more than counters (and the Ruler just barely more)
among a pattern of symbols and high-sounding sentimentality.  Heliane
is Innocence Outraged, the Stranger the Life Force, and so on.  I don't
object to the symbolism per se.  After all, Strauss's Die Frau ohne
Schatten is more complexly symbolic than this but the story actually
shows us something about our own lives.  In Heliane, nothing is really
at stake.

I must admit that such insistence on sexual purity strikes me as morbid.
I much prefer unapologetic decadence, because it's usually merely silly
and pathetic, as opposed to actively evil.

As I've said, the music - with the exception of the Ruler's - isn't
particularly dramatic.  It neither reveals character nor helps push a
story line.  It's an opera not of plot and character but of situations,
and fairly standard ones at that: love duets, mass choruses, jealousy
arias, and so on.  Korngold uses a huge orchestra in the pit and a
substantial ensemble off-stage.  Indeed, the opera comes across as a
virtuoso demonstration of how to handle the post-Strauss orchestra rather
than a dramatic work. There are no less than five keyboards in this
score, not to mention triple winds, augmented brass, minutely-subdivided
strings, harps, a couple of choruses, and perhaps a spare heckelphone
or two.  And a lot of it is playing most of the time.  Everything becomes
supersized - a love duet becomes an act of Tristan, the Stranger keeps
threatening to turn into Siegfried, the Ruler Alberich, the Messenger
Kundry.  It's less an opera about people than an opera about opera.
There's nothing in the entire work truly introspective or that reveals
much psychology.  The voices have to be big to begin with and to sing
big, because that's the only way they can cut through the orchestra.
One waits mostly in vain for some shade in this work.  In short, Krenek's
adherents didn't kill Heliane.  Korngold thought it his finest achievement,
but I think he was wrong.  It's not a patch on the violin concerto, the
Symphonic Serenade, or the Symphony, all written later, significantly,
after Korngold's pioneer filmwork.  His scoring shed a few pounds by
then and in so doing became even more alluring.

Mauceri does his usual brutal job on the score, ignoring balances most
of the time.  It's the classical equivalent of Phil Spector's Wall of
Sound, and it lasts well beyond the three-minute pop-record limit.  The
singers do an heroic job shouting above steam-foundry noise levels.  This
takes a toll mainly on the Stranger, John David de Haan, who strangles
in the vocal stratosphere.  Tomowa-Sintow does the most subtle singing,
since Heliane gets most of the rare quiet moments, and Hartmut Welker
(the Ruler) the most dramatic.

The release is part of the London/Decca "Entartete Musik" (decadent
music) series, dedicated to those composers killed, suppressed, or forced
to flee by the Third Reich.  It's a very interesting series.  Despite
my reservations against this work as an opera, I can't deny the sumptuousness
of the music itself.  It's just pure dazzle.  If that's enough, I can
recommend this set.

Steve Schwartz

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