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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Recordings Review: Trial and Eros

Naxos brings Das Wunder der Heliane back from the dead.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Freyja's Tears by Gustav Klimt, used as cover art for the Naxos release.
For every early 20th century opera that found a place in the standard repertory, there are works that are known only to conductors, musicologists and coffee-loving bloggers. One of these is Das Wunder der Heliane, the 1927 magnum opus by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, It's been recorded before, but this new budget-friendly Naxos set (made at performances and concerts in Freiburg, Germany) offers a new perspective on this controversial but beautiful opera.

Korngold was a wunderkind, a child prodigy whose astonishing skills at improvisation and composition impressed early contemporaries like Gustav Mahler. Heliane represented the climax of the first phase of his career as a composer. It was written in the fevered years before the Nazis rose to power and annexed Austria, an act which forced the composer and his family to flee for America where he would become a founding father of the genre of Hollywood film music. It was also a colossal failure, hyped by the leading music critic in Vienna (who happened to be the composer's father) Heliane was met with indifference and even tittering at its hothouse love story and highly pretentious plot.

The opening of this opera certainly anticipates the Korngold who would conquer Hollywood. There's a series of shifting, uneasy string chords, a crash of cymbals and then the chorus appears, singing as if bathed in light. (There's a reason this sounds like a movie: this technique was borrowed by the composer Alan Silvestri for the opening of his score to The Abyss.) The offstage chorus sings as the curtain rises on a gloomy prison cell in an unknown land. Its inhabitant is known only as the Stranger. (Korngold based the libretto on a play Die Heilige ("The Saint") by Hans Kaltneker, and the libretto was written by his father's colleague Hans Müller.)

This inmate (Ian Storey) is a sort of Christ figure, preaching against the cruelty of the Ruler with an enthusiasm that landed him in the pokey. In the first important scene of the opera, the Ruler shows up to interrogate the Stranger about the nature of his teachings. The Ruler exits and his wife Heliane (Annmarie Kremer) arrives. After the start of an ecstatic duet, her response to his holy presence will be to strip naked. Heliane is accused of adultery with the Stranger. At her trial, the Stranger stabs himself and dies. She is then challenged to resurrect him and (thanks to a repeat of the uplfting orchestral chords) she succeeds. Heliane is then killed by the Ruler, only to be resurrected for a blissful final duet and major-key ascent into heaven in her lover's arms.

Considering the libretto, Heliane may be best experienced in home listening. This Naxos recording captures the depth and beauty of Korngold's orchestration and writing for the voice, and the Philharmonie Orchester Freiburg play as if they are housed in a much larger city. The inventive use of percussion and keyboard instruments gives conductor Fabrice Bollon a wide working canvas. Once you are past the thin jailhouse soup of the opening dialogue between Ruler and Stranger, there are some really marvelous moments. Bollon builds excitement of the long Trial Scene (helped by the acerbic Katerina Hebelkova as the Messenger. There is beauty also in the long Act III prelude, a work that should start appearing on concert programs if a big enough orchestra can be found to play it.

The singers are impressive: led by Ms. Kremer as Heliane. Her entrance lifts the entire opera and her first passionate scene with Ian Storey's Stranger has the two singing Korngold's succulent music with energy and enthusiasm. She is even better in the trial scene in Act II, delivering a warm and lucid account of Heliane's famous aria "Ich ging zu ihm." (Although the show is a rarity, this aria has been a favorite with sopranos of a certain fach ever since the work's premiere.) Mr. Storey, who has sung Tristan on these shores has enough power to get through the challenge of singing the Stranger, and the two singers' performances, taken from a series of concerts and live performances of the opera have been assembled to produce the best possible result.

The best performance here though, is from the bad guy. Greek baritone Aris Argiris makes the Ruler into a tragic, three-dimensional figure with careful preparation and work with Mr. Bollon. The sense of decline is very real here, as he goes from nervous husband to domineering jerk, to utter collapse following his murder of Heliane. Along with Korngold's four other operas, Heliane was removed from the repertory in Vienna due to Nazi censorship of Jewish composers. But in this world that threatens to rapidly turn dark, a recording like this proves that the age of miracles is not entirely past.

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