Bard SummerScape’s Das Wunder der Heliane soars

Being that we’re now some 91 years past the world premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s soaring mystery play Das Wunder der Heliane, issues about whether his music is regressive, progressive, derivative, no better than movie music, but maybe no worse…and was he enhanced creatively by his father’s fierce protection or was he most likely defeated by his father’s behind-the-back efforts…all these issues (and more) are not really relevant at the moments during a live performance.

Sherry Lee’s intelligent notes (on page 8 of the program) and Christian Räth’s Director’s Note (on page 7) give us some good contextual thoughts to ponder, but I think the last line of the latter says it all: “Korngold’s opera and his music bear a spiritual mystery, which should be experienced but cannot be rationally explained, and is a miracle in and of itself,” emphasis on the word “experienced.”

Curtain call at the end of Bard SummerScape’s  Das Wunder der Heliane

Curtain call at the end of Bard SummerScape’s Das Wunder der Heliane

Happily, Bard’s Das Wunder der Heliane was musically, dramatically, scenically and (mostly) vocally exciting throughout what seemed to be a short Sunday afternoon in the Sosnoff Theater. More often than not there were long delicious stretches of music, voice and staging, thus relegating anything the least bit less than wonderful to an infrequent exception. Though the ending of the opera on stage came up a bit short after the miraculous buildup, it was plausible and the introduction of many colored costumes was refreshing. Korngold’s musical ending is much bigger.

The production is under the creative direction of Christian Räth, with sets and costumes designed by Esther Bialas, the lighting designed by Thomas C. Hase, and projections designed by Elaine J. McCarthy. It is “timeless,” though familiar knives and swords and some of the outfits bespeak of an earlier time on earth.

The main set is an ensemble of large pieces consisting of tall mobile towers, metal construction scaffolding covered in semi-transparent gray wrap. These easily break apart and travel across stage on rollers to yield different configurations. Stairs within them allow ascent to the top or descent to the stage floor; there are passage-ways within to allow the soloists and chorus to appear from nowhere and disappear as well. Very clever and quite effective actually.

Striking that Catherine Galasso, the movement director, chose crisp angular movements for the folks impressed by the state. Pose to pose, lifts reset to the ground, all in tight synchrony: the six Judges are a case in point: their choreographed reactions grab our attention, their bright red robes and large red collars contrast sharply with the dull gray background. Many times I felt strongly pulled into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which, probably not coincidentally, also premiered in 1927.* This production of Das Wunder der Heliane is not in black and white like the film, but let’s say every color has an impact.

The stylized movements and edgy stiffness are primarily reserved for those the joyless souls impressed into the dark service of the government, but some other characters move with a conspicuous degree of naturalness and grace. They are: The Porter, whom we first meet as an overseer in the prison in Act I, then again as a caring father in Act III; second, The Stranger, who, throughout the opera, is a sorrowful captive simply because he espouses joy, companionship and love. And then there is Heliane, The Ruler’s lovely wife who remains chaste. Well, more or less.

The contrast between these two groups of characters is most telling.

Aušrine Stundyte is Helaine

Aušrine Stundyte is Helaine

Heliane is marvelously sung by Lithuanian soprano Aušrine Stundyte. Beautiful throughout, she is soft, lithe, and fluid in her movements but also strong and sexual, though not aggressively so. She is defiant, struck down and helpless, desperate, sorely tried, but ultimately triumphant. The tension steadily builds toward her last trial: she must resurrect the dead Stranger in front of all witnesses or die by fire at the stake, if she is not torn apart by the angry mob first. Heliane is a big role, one that demands a wide dramatic and vocal range. Stundyte’s participation in the softer balletic moments during the Prelude to Act III is evidence of her agility and versatility. She is the real deal here. Mille bravi!

At the opera’s start, The Stranger has already been arrested for bringing joy and hope to the joyless and hopeless folk of the land. Through his death, he, Heliane and, of the living, the whole population of the oppressive State are redeemed. Tenor David Brenna, renowned for his singing of Siegfried on the international circuit, presents The Stranger in a dramatic stage presence and a heroic vocal performance of Wagnerian range and stamina. The high tessitura of the role forces him to reach up uncomfortably and, at times, his stentorian voice is actually too loud for the small Sosnoff auditorium. However, within range, his softer voice is sweet, gentle and expressive.

Daniel Brenna is The Stranger

Daniel Brenna is The Stranger

Baritone Nicholas Brownlee as The Porter was elegant in voice, gentle in demeanor, thus bringing hope and humanity to the gloom. He is small comfort to the condemned Stranger in Act I, but in Act III he gives evidence of the miracles of goodness to come.

Nicholas Brownlee is The Porter

Nicholas Brownlee is The Porter

On the loveless side is Alfred Walker as The Ruler of the land. His is an impressively rich, solid, seamless baritone voice, one that forcefully conveys The Ruler’s angry, vengeful and homicidal personality. Wicked Rulers do these things. Walker is costumed in dark leather, festooned with medals, but miserable, devoid of love.

Alfred Walker is The Ruler

Alfred Walker is The Ruler

The Ruler’s henchperson, perhaps a former mistress, is The Messenger, sung by Jennifer Feinstein. Her costume is red, her hair is silver in spite of her youthful face. Praise to J. Jared Janas for wig, hair, and makeup design for this and also for The Blind Chief Justice, sung by David Cangelosi, and the six Judges, in order of their number: Derek Taylor, Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Richard Troxell, Michael J. Hawk, and Kevin Thompson. They too are often cloaked in bright red, perhaps suggesting their blood thirstiness, but certainly in contrast to the gray sets.

Jennifer Feinstein is The Messenger

Jennifer Feinstein is The Messenger

Joseph Demarest is The Young Man who shouts slurs and derision at Heliane in Act III; The Celestial Voices in Acts I and III are sopranos Aine Hakamatsuka and Caroline Miller. The Aged Child is played by Ezra Quinn Lombino; The Young Boy is played by Vladimir Villano Vazquez.

The Bard Festival Chorale, under the direction of Chorus Master James Bagwell, actively traverses a range of characters from those in a fierce angry mob in protest to a transformed populace beginning to feel the love because of Heliane’s miracle to a celestial chorus celebrating the same.

Leon Botstein conducted a well-rehearsed American Symphony Orchestra with his usual aplomb. He loves and knows this repertory well. Thank you, Maestro Botstein!

In his pre-performance talk, looking out over an audience of white-haired music lovers, Mr. Botstein made the point that, should we choose so, we will certainly have the opportunity to see La Bohème again and again in our lifetime...but the opportunity to see Das Wunder der Heliane again? Very unlikely.

OM’s good advice (always good advice): Catch it if you can! You never know, but with Heliane one can guess, when this one with come around again!

Reviewed performance date: a very hot Sunday, July 28, 2019.

Photo of Curtain Call: OM: they are, from left to right, one of Six Judges, Nicholas Brownlee, Vladimir Villano Vazquez, David Brenna, Aušrine Stundyte, Alfred Walker, Jennifer Feinstein, David Cangelosi, and Ezra Quinn Lombino.

Photos of artists were picked from websites.

Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the afternoons of Wednesday, July 31, at 2 p.m., Friday, August 2 at 4 p.m. and Sunday, August 4 at 2 p.m.

Korngold’s more popular 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.

Bard’s Das Wunder der Heliane is wonderful. Support your local opera! OM.

* Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, though silent, had a full length orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz, who, in 1924, had also composed the film score for Lang’s earlier Nibelungen films.** Huppertz’s score for Metropolis was performed at the world premiere. Alas, the original version of Metropolis was severely cut for consumption in the USA. This edited version of Metropolis was bumped from American theaters by The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson, also 1927. The Jazz Singer was one of the very first ‘talkies.’ Guess Korngold was not alone in being bumped by all that jazz…

** Lang’s Nibelungen films (Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge) were based on the original German epic entitled the Nibelungenlied, not on Wagner’s tetralogy, which was, for the last two operas of the Ring (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung), based on about the first half of the original. Obviously Siegfried and Brunhild (no umlaut, one n and no e) are characters in the film, the dragon, the gold, the magic fire, etc. but the epic’s second half is about the conflict between Brunhild and Kriemhild, the latter seeking revenge for the murder of her husband Siegfried. The evil Hagen figures prominently in both halves.