Not only this, but much more!
Those of us who thrilled at the New York City Opera’s ground breaking production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt* in 1975 will certainly not want to miss his next much grander, more mystical opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane). For that matter, nor will other fans of 20th century opera. It’s big, bold, and, as miracles and music go, heavenly.
The tale concerns a conflict of representative types, rather like that in Richard Strauss’s earlier Die Frau ohne Schatten. Only Heliane is named. The Stranger, who exudes joy in life, love, and humanity is in prison apparently for exciting these and thereby disrupting the peace of a kingdom of alienation. “I want mankind to be happy,” he will tell the Ruler, who has come to announce to the Stranger that he is to be executed tomorrow. Prior to this the Porter has told the Stranger of the lovely Heliane, as kind as she is beautiful, and that she and her husband, the Ruler, are a loveless couple. Indeed all of the Ruler’s subjects are miserable. Against the restrictive laws, Heliane visits the Stranger, who is deeply struck by the aura around her being, and, like Salome with Jokanaan, he asks to touch her hair, to kiss her feet, and ultimately to have her body. Heliane retires to a chapel in the prison, barely avoiding discovery by the Ruler, who has returned to offer the Stranger a deal: the Stranger can go free if he can make Heliane love the Ruler. The trembling Stranger falters; Heliane appears, still naked (at least in the stage directions); the Ruler, enraged, has her arrested.
In Act II we meet more of the loveless, miserable people of the kingdom, particularly the snarling vengeful Messenger, perhaps once the Ruler’s sex object, and the Blind Judge. At the trial, in her defense, Heliane sings Ich ging zu ihm (I went to him who is to die tomorrow). It’s the centerpiece solo of the opera, building on themes set forth in Act I, gradually increasing in intensity, in the manner of Ariadne’s Es gibt ein Reich in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. She denies any real love for the Stranger, but she admits that she gave herself to him, which, of course, further enrages the Ruler. He gives Heliane a dagger with which to commit self-execution. But the Stranger bursts in with a better plan. Courtroom cleared, he asks Heliane to kill him right then and there. This act on her part will not only make him pay for his crimes, but also it will move the Ruler to pardon her. Heliane can’t do it, though. Without giving away how we get from this impass to Act III, let’s just say that ultimately joy and love triumph in spirit, accompanied by heavenly voices.
In Vienna at the turn of the last century, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a musical child prodigy. He grew up in a cultural hothouse of operas from the likes of Richard Strauss, Antonin Dvořák, Carl Goldmark, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Alban Berg, and Arnold Schönberg, to name just a few, as well as the symphonic and chamber music from most of the aforementioned plus Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, usw. You know the art of that period as well: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, et al., Otto Wagner’s Jugendstil, Arthur Schnitzler’s tales, Brecht’s plays, and of course Franz Wedekind’s Lulu. It was a very rich, creative time.
Erich was the second son of Julius Korngold. Julius was an amateur musician who actually studied under Bruckner, but, more importantly, he was a powerful music critic, filling the shoes of the notorious Eduard Hanslick at the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna. He recognized his son’s gifts immediately and, to cultivate them properly, placed Erich more or less under house arrest so that his talents and skills would blossom and perfect without distractions or interference from the outside. The psychological ramifications of these years would be long lasting.
Erich’s first forays into opera (at 19) premiered in Munich on March 28, 1916 in the form of a double bill of one-act compositions: Der Ring des Polykrates (op. 7) and Violanta (op. 8), both under the baton of Bruno Walter.** No, the first is not a spoof of Wagner’s tetralogy, but rather a chamber opera, quite charming in its way, an adaptation of a slight comic drama; the second is volcanic, an explosion of hot passion, betrayal, and revenge. In 1920 Korngold scored a big hit with the full length Die tote Stadt, set to a libretto by himself and his father Julius, under the nom-de-plume of “Paul Schott,” adapted from the novel Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach. On December 4, 1920, Die tote Stadt had simultaneous premieres in Hamburg and Cologne (this one with a young Otto Klemperer conducting).*** In November, 1921 Die tote Stadt premiered at the Met with Maria Jeritza as Marietta. Her 1927 recording of Glück, das mir verblieb on the Victor label was a best seller (though in the opera it’s actually the first part of an aria/duet between Marietta and Paul).****
But then came bumps in the road. Erich struggled to surface from the suffocating control of his father: he chose to marry one Luzi von Sonnenthal, a move fiercely opposed by Julius. Meanwhile the latter waged prose wars with the likes of Richard Strauss, Arnold Schönberg, any Serialist composers actually, but also against anything new. At the same time, the conservatives, later the Nazis, were condemning any art, literature or music as degenerate if it seemed glorified the immoral, the decadent and/or the decayed. Some of the operas of the period fell into these categories, for instances Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (1912) and Die Gezeichneten (1918) or, later, Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1928) and Aufstieg und fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930). Corrupt officials, crooks and whores.
Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, which premiered in Leipzig in February, 1927, came in between these. With its variety of musical styles, including faux jazz, it swept through Europe as a defining example of a Zeitoper, an ‘opera of the time.’ Facing the threat of modernism, Franz Schalk, then director of the Vienna Opera, at first sided with Julius Korngold (and also with the German Nationalists) against performances of Jonny spielt auf in Vienna. But Schalk, with his eye to the potentially big box office and under increasing pressure from supporters of modern music, caved in: Jonny spielt auf premiered with great, but not uncontested success, at the Vienna Opera on New Year’s Eve, 1927.
Back to Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane: it had premiered in Hamburg in early October, 1927, with Maria Hussa in the title role. For the Vienna premiere, Korngold assembled two star-laden casts (the first with the by-now superstar Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura) so that his opera could be performed on successive evenings. But the excitement was for Jonny, not for Heliane. The first performance was a failure, the second was withdrawn, Die tote Stadt was substituted instead.
Subsequent performances of Das Wunder der Heliane in Vienna materialized, some conducted by Korngold himself, and others were scheduled throughout Europe, but Krenek supporters found that Julius had written to theaters urging them not to stage Jonny spielt auf. The backlash against Vater Korngold defeated his son’s Heliane.
Korngold “retired” to edit versions of operettas for director Max Reinhardt, ultimately leading the latter, after fleeing Germany, to invite Korngold to compose film music for his first and only Hollywood film, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935. Korngold’s subsequent film scores were highly praised, leading to two Academy Awards: for Anthony Adverse (1936) and for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); The Sea Hawk (1940) with Errol Flynn is a personal favorite of mine…and so on. Though Korngold would write one last opera in Europe before the war, Die Kathrin, the Nazi occupation prevented successful productions.
Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the evening of July 26 (U.S. premiere) at 7:30 p.m., the afternoons of Sunday, July 28, Wednesday, July 31, and Sunday, August 4 at 2 p.m., and the afternoon of August 2 at 4 p.m. The pre-opera talk with Leo Botstein, who conducts all performances, is on Sunday, July 28 at noon.
The production is directed by Christian Räth, with sets and costumes by Esther Bialas. Soprano Ausrine Stundyte will sing the title role; tenor Daniel Brenna is the Stranger.
Don’t miss it.
On Thursdays and Sundays, July 25 through August 18 at 7 p.m. many, if not all of the films for which Korngold composed the scores will be shown.
On Sunday, August 11, Korngold’s popular music and edits of operettas are presented.
Korngold’s Die tote Stadt will be performed in concert at the Sosnoff Theater at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 18; a pre-concert talk is at 4 p.m. Other features that weekend concern Korngold in America, featuring compositions and discussions.
* April, 1975, and again in September of the same year, with Carol Neblett, John Alexander, and Dominic Cossa, conducted by Imre Pallo
** The opera discography, at least on my shelves, is as follows: Der Ring des Polycrates, on CPO CDs, released in 1996, conducted by Klauspeter Seibel; Violanta, now on CBS CDs , released in 1980, starring Eva Marton, Siegfried Jerusalem, Walter Berry, et al. conducted by Marek Janowski; Die tote Stadt, now on RCA Victor CDs, recorded and released in 1975 on vinyl, starring Carol Neblett, René Kollo, Benjamin Luxon, Herrmann Prey, et al. conducted by Erich Leinsdorf; Das Wunder der Heliane, on London CDs (one of the Entartete Musik series), starring Anna Tomowa-Sintow, John David de Haan, Reinhild Runkel, René Pape, Nicolai Gedda, et al. conducted by John Mauceri, released in 1993; Die Kathrin, on CPO CDs, released in 1998, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. At least one other recording of Die tote Stadt and, more recently, Das Wunder der Heliane exists, but I have not heard them. Renée Fleming sings Glück, das mir verblieb from Die tote Stadt on the Decca CD album Renée Fleming The Beautiful Voice, conducted by Jeffrey Tate, released in 1998. She sings Ich ging su ihm from Act II of Das Wunder der Heliane on the Decca CD album Homage: The Age of the Diva, conducted by Valery Gergiev, released in 2006.
On the top of the page Addenda are a three Korngold selections sung by Ms. Fleming, Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt, Ich ging zu ihm from Das Wunder der Heliane, and Ich soll ihn niemals from Die Kathrin. Also is the great Lotte Lehmann singing Ich ging zu ihm. Lehmann sang the role of Heliane in the Vienna premiere performance.
Die tote Stadt has at least two video disc releases. One, on the ArteHaus Musik label, is an Opéra National du Rhin production from 2001, well sung by Torsten Kerl and Angela Denoke and the others, but conceived and staged in such a ridiculous manner that I, for one, can’t watch it. I’ll bet I’m not alone in this! Play it only for the soundtrack. The other, also on the ArteHaus Musik label, is a Deutsche Oper Berlin 1983 production by Götz Friedrich starring James King as Paul and Karen Armstrong as Marietta. With sets designed by Andreas Reinhardt, it has the proper gloom of Bruges, the dark dead city. Though James King is older than I imagine Paul to be, his lingering sadness for his loss of Marie touches one to the core.
This just in: at the SummerScape performance of Das Wunder der Heliane I purchased the Naxos Blu ray DVD of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s production in spring 2019. Not yet viewed.
*** The idea of simultaneous world premieres was not new. Pietro Mascagni, whose verismo Cavalleria Rusticana rocked the opera world in 1890, had the cogliones to premiere his commedia dell’arte opera Le maschere (The Maskers, aka Characters in Masks) on January 17, 1901 at La Scala (conducted by himself, of course; later by Toscanini), the Costanzi in Roma, the Carlo Felice in Genoa, the Regio in Turino, La Fenice in Venezia, and the Filarmonico in Verona. Six, count ‘em, six world premiere failures in one night…gotta be a record…!
**** Maria Jeritza sang Ariadne in the world premiere of the original 1912 version of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, conceived and directed by Max Reinhardt), also in the world premiere of the 1916 revised version we know and love today. The revised Ariadne also introduced a young Lotte Lehmann to Vienna in the newly created role of The Composer. Jeritza was the Empress in the world premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (with Lehmann as the Dyer’s Wife) in 1919 and Helena in Ägyptische Helena, US and Met premiere in 1928. Korngold wrote for her voice the roles Violanta (she sang it in the Vienna premiere), Marietta (the 1920 Hamburg world premiere and Vienna premiere), and Heliane with Jeritza in mind, though she declined the offer. Jeritza sang the Met premieres of Die tote Stadt in 1921, Jenůfa (in German) in 1924, and Turandot in 1926. She was also a renowned Salome, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Minnie in La fanciulla del West. Strauss, Korngold, Puccini , they all loved her…The story goes that she tripped on stage during a performance of Tosca, forcing her to sing Vissi d’Arte on her stomach...might have been at the Met…Marcel Prawy called her ‘the Primadonna of the Century.’
Jeritza was in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera on November 11, 1974, the night of the premiere of the new production of Jenůfa (in English) with Teresa Kubiak, Astrid Varnay, Jon Vickers and William Lewis, under John Nelson). We acknowledged her presence with applause.
The SummerScape performance of Weber’s Euryanthe was OM’s first review in 2014. Time flies when you’re having fun!
Support your local opera festivals. Bring lots of friends with you! OM