United States Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane: Soloists, Bard Festival Chorale, The American Symphony Orchestra / Leon Botstein (conductor), SummerScape Opera, Fisher Center, Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 26.8.2019. (RP)
Director – Christian Räth
Sets & Costumes – Esther Bialas
Choreographer – Catherine Galasso
Wigs, Hair & Makeup – J. Jared Janas
Lighting – Thomas C. Hase
Projection – Elaine J. McCarthy
Chorus Master – James Bagwell
Heliane – Aušrinė Stundytė
Ruler – Alfred Walker
Stranger – Daniel Brenna
Messenger – Jennifer Feinstein
Porter – Nicholas Brownlee
Blind Chief Justice – David Cangelosi
Judges – Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Michael J. Hawk, Derek Taylor, Kevin Thompson, Richard Troxell
Young Man – Joseph Demarest
Celestial Voices – Aine Hakamatsuka, Coroline Miller
Aged Child – Ezra Quinn Lombino
Young Boy – Vladimir Viliano Vazquez
One of the what-if scenarios that I ponder is the course Western classical music would have taken but for World War II. The Austrian-born composer and conductor Erich Korngold always figures prominently in these musings, as does his compatriot Franz Schmidt. (Singing in a performance of Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln at the Basel Münster was one of the great musical experiences of my life.) Tainted by his association with the Nazi Party, Schmidt was all but consigned to oblivion. Korngold credited the Hollywood film Robin Hood with saving his life: he was in the US in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria. Korngold later remarked, ‘We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish’.
Korngold’s first opera, Die tote Stadt, was a hit throughout Europe after its 1919 premiere; Strauss and Puccini lavished praise upon its composer. Das Wunder der Heliane was his fourth opera, first staged in Hamburg in 1927. A success there and in Vienna, the opera was a critical flop in Berlin, which sealed its fate. Thanks to Leon Botstein, the Swiss-American Jewish conductor and scholar who serves as President of Bard College, Das Wunder der Heliane is receiving its much-anticipated US premiere at the 2019 SummerScape Opera at Bard.
Das Wunder der Heliane is the story of a spiritual and erotic awakening set in a dystopian, totalitarian state. Korngold’s inspiration was the play Die Heilige by Hans Kaltneker, the Austrian Expressionist dramatist, poet and author. The plot centers on a ruthless despot who has yet to consummate his marriage to the beautiful and kindly Heliane. The arrival of a charismatic young man not only stirs the passions of the oppressed populace, but also awakens the sensual desires of Heliane.
The Stranger’s charisma alone is enough for him to be imprisoned and sentenced to death. Unfounded allegations of adultery are leveled against Heliane and, to prove her innocence, she must awaken the Stranger from the dead. Virtue triumphs, but Heliane is murdered by her husband. Heliane too is mysteriously returned to life, the Ruler sent into exile and the populace liberated. The opera ends in a mystical union of body and spirit for Heliane and the Stranger to rather glorious music.
Korngold wrote for heroic voices. Soprano Aušrinė Stundytė captured Heliane’s emotional, erotic and spiritual journey in a richly detailed characterization. Stundytė was an absolute vision of innocence and ripe sensuality in the pale blue, diaphanous dress in which she presented herself to the Stranger. Her voice is dark and of ample size, but the role taxed her vocally.
Tenor Daniel Brenna as the Stranger fared worse. Too often Brenna bellowed, pushing his voice until it cracked. His energy flagged noticeably in the third act, although he summoned his resources for the final scene. Brenna only skimmed the surface of the complex nature of the Messenger’s being. I kept wondering what Siegfried Jerusalem in his prime or Klaus Florian Vogt nowadays would do with this role.
The rest of the cast was excellent. Alfred Walker embodied a brutal despot, although humanity crept into his characterization as he described his sexual longing for his wife, whose goodness and purity paralyzed him. Walker’s scintillating bass-baritone cut through the orchestra with ease.
Equally fascinating was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein as the Messenger, the Ruler’s cast-off mistress who goaded him on to ever greater acts of cruelty and depravity. In a costume that was equal parts prison matron and flight attendant for a state-owned airline in a former Soviet satellite country (the shiny, blood-red shoes were a perfect touch), her voice blazed with intensity, and the high notes were thrilling.
The most unsettling sight in Christian Räth’s grim production was that of the Blind Chief Justice who presided over the trial of Heliane, his daughter, from a cart pulled by a boy in a chrome harness. The image resonated on so many levels, all of them profoundly disturbing. David Cangelosi, a terrific character tenor, was the Chief Justice, surprisingly tender and paternal in his interactions with his daughter.
Another standout performance came from the young bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee as the Porter. Brownlee has a natural ease on stage, and his voice flowed freely, full and even. His Act III aria was one of the lyrical highlights of the performance.
Botstein’s concept of Korngold’s lavish score was sweeping and grand, and the orchestra reveled in its beautiful melodies and the lush chromaticism. Greater transparency would have revealed more of the score’s intricacies, but given the density of the orchestration, Botstein did an admirable job calibrating the balance between stage and pit. The opera also has wonderful, powerful choruses, and the Bard Festival Chorale’s sound was luxurious and impressive. Its members created vivid characters that brimmed with personality, enriching the fiber of the drama.
The stark industrial set seemed an extension of the functional interior of The Fisher Center, the work of architect Frank Gehry, whose other projects include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. As a jail, it expanded from a prison cell to a fathomless space from which escape was impossible. Reconfigured, it served as a court room in which red-collared judges perched menacingly during Heliane’s trial and, in another transformation, it became the area from which the people observed the miracles. Finally, Heliane appeared on a large disc with a mirror suspended above it from which she rose for her mystical communion with the Stranger and the cosmos.
For more information about Bard SummerScape’s ‘Korngold and his World’ click here.