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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Recordings Review: Heliane in a Handbasket

A great opera by Korngold returns to the catalogue.
Lotte Lehman and Jan Kiepura in the premiere of Die Wunder das Heliane.
Photo © Vienna State Opera.
 This month's current slate of Decca reissues features Erich Wolfgang Korngold's little-heard opera Die Wunder das Heliane. This opera (The Miracle of Heliane in English) is a strange symbolic story of a legendary princess, a despotic Ruler, (her husband) and the mysterious Stranger, whom Heliane is in love with. The Christ-like death and resurrection of both Heliane and the Stranger that enable the lovers to escape the Ruler's dark kingdom in a swirl of gloriously orchestrated music.

This recording was made in the early '90s, just at the end of the boom period for the big classical labels. It stars Bulgarian diva Anna Tomowa-Sintow in the demanding title role opposite tenor John David de Haan. Both singers cope admirably with the difficult vocal score and demanding roles.

They are ably supported by Reinhild Runkel, Hartmut Welker and, in one of his very last recordings, Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. John Mauceri is a bit of a specialist in Korngold, having regularly conducted the composer's film music in concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Here, he leads the Berlin RSO in a sumptuous performance that pulls out all the orchestral stops.

Heliane had a difficult birth. When it arrived in Vienna, Korngold's opera was presented in competition with the far more populist Jonny Spielt Auf, a jazz opera by Ernst Krenek. Krenek's opera proved more popular with the Viennese, not least because Korngold's father, Julius, a music critic, unleashed a vicious series of attacks on Krenek that backfired against Heliane.

Both operas were banned when the Nazis came to power, along with wonderful works by Schreker, Schoenberg, and anyone else who didn't meet the Third Reich's ridiculous standards of "artistic purity." Korngold, a child prodigy best known for composing the opera Die Tote Stadt fled to Hollywood and became a film composer, scoring classic films including The Sea Hawk, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and Anthony Adverse.

Although Tote Stadt is considered to be an early masterwork, his later operas have had difficulty finding an audience. As a tonal composer who refused to embrace serial methods, Korngold's music was out of fashion in the 20th century. He has been rediscovered in recent years. Hopefully, the reduced-price reissue of Heliane will lead to more listeners discovering the glorious complexity of this underrated genius.

To learn more about Korngold, check out the official website of the Korngold Society!

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.