KORNGOLD Das Wunder der Heliane (Bollon)
A new recording of Das Wunder der Heliane is, by definition, an event. The premiere recording in 1993 marked the launch of Decca’s seminal Entartete Musik series, and to some extent lifted the jinx on the opera that Korngold considered his masterpiece, and whose troubled birth in 1927 blighted his later career. A massive, allegorical drama of love’s triumph over evil, composed in a style that is (to quote Michael Haas) ‘not so much post-romantic as hyper-romantic’, Heliane’s opulence, mysticism and vaulting ambition makes Die Frau ohne Schatten look like Hänsel und Gretel.
This new release from Naxos is only the second complete recording: a venture which, whatever its strengths and failings, deserves respect. First impressions are good, with Fabrice Bollon conducting the heavenly-chorus prelude in a warm, sculpted sweep of music, the Freiburg forces clearly unfazed by the multi-layered intricacy of Korngold’s orchestral writing. The story concerns a tyrannical Ruler, his unhappy wife Heliane and a compassionate, Christ-like Stranger, and Heliane really stands or falls on these three roles.
The original 1927 production featured Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura, no less; the concert performances from which this recording was made have altogether less star-power. Which is not to say that the singing is unattractive, though taken as a whole it’s on the pale side. You do sense the (perfectly understandable) strain on the principals in the big moments, and there’s a certain score-bound quality in (for example) the Act 1 confrontation between the Stranger (Ian Storey) and the Ruler (Aris Argiris), as well as Act 3’s climactic showdown. Ideally, you’d hope for more black, ringing vehemence from the Ruler, and greater radiance from the Stranger.
Annemarie Kremer, as Heliane, is at her most affecting in the quieter moments: the fragility that she brings to her great Act 2 aria ‘Ich ging zu ihm’ makes it, quite properly, the heart of the whole drama. She’s shakier when she really has to soar, though again that’s understandable, and there’s a glow to her voice that’s well suited to Heliane’s chaste sensuality. Of the smaller roles, Nutthaporn Thammathi as the Blind Judge and Frank van Hove as the Gatekeeper sound disconcertingly youthful, and Katerina Hebelková brilliantly captures the Messenger’s brittle ferocity. The choral singing is fervent, and blends richly with the orchestral playing – which, under Bollon’s shapely, impassioned direction is the real glory of this performance. Korngold’s silken swathes of art nouveau sonority never feel self-indulgent or amorphous.
Naxos, in best Ryanair style, provides a basic synopsis but no printed libretto, and I couldn’t find any way to download one either. That’s a serious black mark in repertoire as rare as this, though not a problem if you already have the Decca recording – which for quality of singing, and sense of drama, still outclasses this new release on all fronts. But serious Korngold fans will want both, and for the Korngold-curious, Naxos offers a sincere and often stirring opportunity to discover this extraordinary opera. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another quarter of a century for the next.