KORNGOLD Das Wunder der Heliane (Albrecht)
You may have objections to the piece itself. Described in advance by Korngold as his ‘greatest’ work, Heliane’s Miracle (1927) was the ultimate in large-scale Romantic opera, tricked out with every orchestral indulgence a composer at the top of his reputation game could then expect, multiple woodwind and brass, offstage band and chorus not excepted in a 100-plus instrumental line-up. And plans for 18 premieres. In a booklet note, biographer Brendan G Carroll attributes its relative lack of success (compared to Violanta or Die tote Stadt) to retaliatory hostility to the propaganda war the composer’s father – a leading critic and sometime librettist for his son – was waging with rival opera-maker Ernst Krenek. But he also acknowledges the fact that Korngold had by this time fallen out of step with the new post-1918 Zeitoper (literally, ‘opera of the time’) world, ignoring Richard Strauss’s perceptive and recent advice to his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal about their Die Frau ohne Schatten: ‘Let’s make up our minds that this will be the last Romantic opera’.
It’s that Strauss opera – especially its scale and mythology – which was a definitive influence on Heliane. As in Frau, Korngold’s weightily scored musical depiction of simple stage actions (a push, a fall) makes Puccini’s illustrative scoring in, say, Tosca seem restrained. Yet subtle balancing in the pit and among the drama onstage can do a great deal, and conductor and stage director certainly achieve both in this recent Berlin production. Albrecht cheats us of none of the impact of Korngold’s scoring – and it is big – but paces the accompaniment to the drama tightly. And that’s none too easy because, as if in anticipation of his coming work for the movies, Korngold is far more illustrator than psychological commentator (you may argue it’s a backward step from Wagner, Strauss and Mahler). You may recognise Christof Loy’s and designers Johannes Leiacker and Barbara Drosihn’s work from their Covent Garden productions: a single-unit large-room set; a stripped-down look, partly modernised (to about 1930s/’40s); and many ‘extra’ actors but total fidelity to the score’s action rather than translation to another sphere or style. It works well here, emphasising the sinister aspects of the story with an eerie, Kafkaesque calm rather than invented period weirdness.
No praise is too high for the three lead singers, who you feel must have been living in an oxygen tent to encompass so fully the technical demands of projecting their parts over such a huge barrage of sound. They also act with impressive minimalist intensity and Jakubiak takes on fully the requirement that her character appears nude towards the end of Act 1, more moving (and dramatically correct) than a rival production on YouTube in which Heliane appears in vampish underwear. But their strength and fluency – and embracing of the style – in the music gives this set a clear advantage over its rivals. Okka von der Damerau also is refreshingly and un camply straightforward as the important Botin, the moralist Messenger once the Ruler’s lover. The John Mauceri recording (Decca, 4/93) was an important pioneer but lacks Albrecht’s live theatrical unity, while the cast from Freiburg (Naxos, 1/19) do not equal their colleagues here. Hugely recommended: an in-at-the-deepest-end introduction to Korngold’s art.