Cher Public

‘Wunder’ of wonders

Opera Vlaanderen opened its 2017-18 season with a rare staging of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane. I saw the production’s penultimate performance in Antwerp, on October 8 in Antwerp, exactly 90 years (and 1 day) after its 1927 Hamburg premiere. David Bösch’s post-apocalyptic setting provided a workable reading of a problematic narrative, showcasing the work’s sumptuous score and a sensational assumption of the title role.

Korngold is probably best remembered for the Hollywood movie music he wrote in the 30s and 40s, but he first gained attention as a child prodigy. Born in 1897 in Brno, in 1901 he and his family moved to Vienna, where his father, Julius, succeeded Eduard Hanslick as music critic at the Neue Freie Presse. After he composed his first piece at age 8, Papa encouraged Erich’s talent, introducing him to the right people, including Mahler, who arranged for the boy to study with Zemlinsky.

Erich’s work was well received—Artur Schnabel premiered his Piano Sonata No. 2, written when the boy was fourteen, and five years later Bruno Walter conducted the successful premiere of his two one-act operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta. His third opera, Die tote Stadt, premiering in 1920 when he was only 23, was an instant hit.

He continued to compose instrumental works while working as music director and conductor at the Hamburg Opera. He also began arranging operettas for the producer Max Reinhardt, a connection which would prove life changing.

Korngold wrote his third opera during the happy period after his marriage to Luzi. In the months before it opened Korngold’s father again stepped in to promote his son’s career. Julius knew of the imminent premiere of Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, a “jazz opera” contrasting dramatically with Heliane’s more romantic style, and he launched a bully campaign to sink it, publishing screeds meant to create a backlash against the edgier modern work.

But instead his polemic provided free publicity for Jonny, which enjoyed greater success than Heliane, which disappeared after a revival in Berlin in 1928. Ironically, both operas were later condemned by the Nazis as “Entartete Musik,” so-called degenerate music.

Korngold continued to maintain an active career teaching and composing in Vienna. But Vienna was becoming an awkward place for Jews, and when Max Reinhardt, now living in Hollywood, approached him in 1934 to create the music for a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Erich had the good sense to take him up on the invitation. His lavish, exuberant style proved a good fit for Hollywood’s early swashbucklers, and Korngold won two best score Oscars.

He stopped writing for the movies after a heart attack in 1948, and he died in Hollywood in 1957. (Krenek, whose Austrian career foundered because of his so-called degenerate style, left Vienna for the US in 1938, teaching composition in colleges to support his creative career. He moved to Southern California in 1948 and spent another 40 prolific years until his death in 1991. One wonders whether the two ever overcame their earlier rivalry to meet in America)


Back to Heliane: the libretto is based on a symbolist play by Hans Kaltneker, adapted by the poet Hans Müller, and revolves around a man who yearns for his wife’s love. In an unnamed land in medieval times, a tyrannical, elderly Ruler demands that his people forego love and happiness, because his wife, Heliane, does not love him. A Stranger comes to the land preaching joy and freedom; for this the Ruler imprisons him, and condemns him to death.

When Heliane goes to comfort the prisoner, she is attracted to him, and yields to his request to show him her long hair, then her feet, then finally her body. After she drops her dress, he begs her to yields to him, but she refuses and repairs—still naked—to a nearby chapel to pray (as one does).

The Ruler again visits the Prisoner and offers to spare his life and even to share Heliane with him if the latter can teach the Ruler to gain her love. When Heliane returns to the prison cell, the enraged Ruler withdraws his offer of clemency and orders his wife to be tried for adultery as well.

The Messenger—once the Ruler’s mistress—summons the judges to trial, and the Ruler accuses Heliane of adultery. She denies betraying her husband, but the Ruler hands her his dagger and demands that she kill herself. The Stranger refuses to testify, and asks for a word alone with Heliane. After a farewell kiss, he grabs the dagger and stabs himself. The Ruler says Heliane may save herself by performing a miracle: reviving the Stranger from the dead.

In the final act, when Heliane changes her story and says that she did love the Stranger, the Ruler hands her over to the people who once loved her, now an angry mob. As they prepare to drag her to the stake, a thunderbolt reveals the Stranger returned to life. Enraged, the Ruler stabs Heliane, and the two lovers are united forever in death.

The melodramatic narrative, echoing love triangles like Tristan und Isolde and Pelléas et Mélisande, lurches with the heated plot twists of a soap opera. We hear every affective nuance in the music, beginning with a heavenly chorus (offstage) proclaiming, “Blessed are they who love,” before the music turns sinister, ecstatic, and cataclysmic by turns. With intense emotions depicted nonstop, it all becomes a bit much. But the harmonic language and orchestration are interesting, and ultimately the score is a glorious if guilty pleasure.

Arguably, composers like Wagner, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Mascagni paved the way for this luxuriously expressive style of operatic composition, where music closely reflects words, actions, and feelings unconfined by the formal conventions of earlier opera. As far as I know, however, only Mascagni wrote an actual film score, for the 1915 silent movie Rapsodia Satanica.

The scenario shares the overt eroticism of other works of its time, like Hindemith’s 1922 Sancta Susanna and Szymanowski’s 1926 King Roger. Bösch’s austere, scorched earth production, with dramaturgy by Barbora Horáková Joly, dwells less on sex and more on the power exercised by an impotent ruler (perhaps literally impotent), and the fickle loyalties of his subjects.

He updates the setting to a vaguely contemporary wasteland out of a Mad Max movie (sets and costumes by Christof Hetzer, lighting by Michael Bauer). Spotlights penetrate the misty shadows and there are almost no props. A downtrodden populace in filthy shapeless rags and bad hair move listlessly about the stage.

Wearing combat boots and a grubby cotton shift, Heliane (Ausrine Stundyte), first seen crouching on the frame of a tattered billboard upstage, looked like an escapee from Bedlam. Her husband, the shaved-headed, perpetually scowling Ruler was here a man in his prime, showing off a deep scar on his bare chest as he stomped around the rubble brandishing a sawed-off shotgun.

His perpetual bad temper and hair-trigger decisions didn’t make much sense, but a program note suggested that Bösch wanted to allude to modern politics while still presenting a straightforward reading of the unfamiliar work.

Dressed in baggy pants and a dirty singlet, with his gray buzz cut and blood-smeared dad bod, Ian Storey didn’t quite muster the acting chops to convey the seductive allure of Müller’s proto-hippie Stranger, but his gentle dignity signaled an attractive inner beauty and sincere attachment to Heliane, and his sweet but powerful tenor negotiated the punishing part with virtually no strain.

Certainly Stundyte generated enough heat for both of them. The Latvian soprano has earned an avid following for her gripping performances of dramatic soprano and occasionally mezzo roles; her voice seems made of very separate registers, but she deploys her wide range and broad palette of vocal colors expressively. A real stage animal, she was utterly magnetic, embodying with posture and energy the difference between a longing gaze at the Stranger and a stand-off with her husband.

In her big second act monologue, “Ich ging zu ihm,” she resisted the temptation to wallow in vocal creaminess, instead conveying a bittersweet memory of temptation and longing with more subtle means.

Tómas Tómasson’s Ruler exuded menace and vocal authority; incongruously, there was more erotic charge between him and Heliane, and between the Ruler and the Messenger than between Heliane and the Stranger. Metal-voiced mezzo Natascha Petrinsky’s charisma and engagement gave the Messenger greater prominence that the libretto would suggest.

Tenor Denzil Delaere, a member of the young artist program, lent a clarion tenor to the role of the Blind Judge, and his fellow young artist Markus Suihkonen as the Jailer displayed an authoritative stage presence and a strong bass voice.

The Opera Vlaanderen chorus ably handled their prominent ensemble parts; despite third act blocking that required them to move like zombie line dancers, they muster enough conviction to carry it off. The children’s chorus sounded heavenly. Company music director Alexander Joel paced the performance nicely and commanded disciplined playing from the Opera Vlaanderen Symphony Orchestra.

If you’ve never heard the opera, do listen to the 1992 recording by the RSO Berlin, with Anna Tomawa-Sintow; the two principal men are less persuasive, but secondary roles feature Rene Pape, Nicolai Gedda and Reinhild Runkel.

Photos: Annemie Augustijns


  • Lucky you!

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    Looking forward to seeing Brian Jagde in this opera the new production in Berlin.

  • Apulia

    I believe Ausrine Stundyte is Lithuanian, not Latvian

    • Camille

      That is what is stated on her agent’s page so you believe correctly. Certainly sings the big heavy repertory. Wonder if we’ll ever get a chance to hear her here?

      • fantasia2000

        Camille, I saw her as Renata in Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel at Bayerische Staatsoper last February (Barrie Kosky production). She was, indeed, dynamite, both in the acting department required by that production, and in voice department! I’m hoping to catch her again next month in Zemlinsky’s “Eint florentinische Tragödie” in Amsterdam alongside Schukoff.

        • Camille

          Yes, I have read that this particular killer part is in her repertory and if she is still left standing and with a voice after that—well, she’s someone to watch out for. I would be interested to hear more in the future, so thank you.

      • Apulia

        I wonder, too. Meanwhile we can watch this: Yes I wonder, too--there’s this:

        • Camille

          Thanks. Another killer role and one I don’t much relish but I’ll give it a listen anyway.

    • Susan Brodie

      Thank you for catching that — I remember checking verifying that detail, and somehow I still goofed.

      • Apulia

        I checked only because I have Latvian friends and women’s names in Latvia end in “a” unless they’re of Russian or some other non-Latvian origin. You’re welcome. She’s an impressive singer one way or another.

  • Camille

    Wunderbar, indeed, to start one’s morning with Rapsodia Satanica and La Borelli!!! Thank you so much for providing that link as I didn’t make much of the music when listening upon its discovery, a while back now.

    Also Wunderbar is to hear of opera-doings in far-off places and one which is particularly dear to my heart—Antwerpen. Such a jewel of a house and the city as well, not to mention chocolates to die for and the excellent examples of the Jugendstyl architectured houses. So nice to hear this interesting work was revived successfully and here is hoping it will be done one day by an opera house nearby, even if that be the Rose Theatre.

    Dank U Wel, Mevrouw Brodie!

    • Plantin-Moretus is the most fascinating specialist museum I ever visited. You really feel the intellectual excitement of the renaissance there. Antwerp really is a great place in many ways except its weather!

      • Camille

        Why thank you. If I can remember it, I will ask our friends there about this as they know everything about art that’s there. I really loved the place and would love to see that adorable opera house un bel dì, again!

        Oh my! Certainly right up my creek! The only museum on the UNESCO World Heritage list. That is really, really impressive. Well——one day!

        • That is yet another triumph of hope over experience. I hate dressing up.

          • “They are turning it into a playground…” Well, as I mentioned elsewhere, the whole place smells of food, as if it were to some extent a food court with art.

            • Camille

              You know——-you’ve made me stop and re-think this, and thus far I’ve come up with:

              Second floor newly renovated cafeteria style “osteria”,

              Second floor newly renovated overpriced coffee bar with diabetic snacks,

              Fifth floor more formal--read expensive--dining room,

              The Really Expensive first floor bar-restaurant as one walks in called “The Modern”, where one takes visiting film luminaries and such,

              AND—the Grand Courtyard which has a coffee and bites snack concession at one end. There--is that all?

              When you figure in the two stoes (one of which is being renovated), along with the new stop ‘n shop on the second floor adjacent to the second floor eating concessions—

              Well then—I think you just may have stumbled onto and found out their secret agenda!! At least the Metropolitan Museum of Art keeps their food hermetically sealed underground and the Members Dining Room is way far off from the viewing. Now I’ll have to go do an investigation of others. Thank you for pointing this out to me as one day I’ll not be surprised if MoMA is left with the Monet water lillies as a centerpiece for their restaurants et rien autre!

      • Susan Brodie

        Plantin-Moretus was at the top of my museum list, and one day I will go back! To be honest, I preferred the Ghent location for this company (closer to Paris, where I frequently stay), but clearly Antwerp has has charms that a day trip didn’t leave time to discover.

        • From Paris, there are Thalys services to Antwerp, so you don’t change trains in Brussels.

          • Susan Brodie

            By the time I bought my ticket that option was substantially more expensive than with a connection, which was still more than I was happy to pay. The Thalys always seems wildly overpriced unless you buy well ahead, which unfortunately is not my habit. Is there a predictable window within which the fares rise steeply?

            • Sorry, I don’t know. I do know, as I have a subscription at La Monnaie, that the best fares are available three months in advance. But that knowledge is of course only useful to people who know well in advance when they’re travelling.

    • Susan Brodie

      Thank you, Camille! I didn’t really have time to do more than walk around, with breaks to shelter from the rain, which I gather is a fact of life, given all the window displays of waterproof outerwear. I entirely missed the Jugendstyl architecture, but was impressed at how OLD the old buildings look, in comparison to Brussels’s rebuilt Grand’ Place. I shall return!

      • Camille

        Good! do return, and ask someone where the section of those houses in Jugendstyl might be. I don’t know how to describe the area as I was only there once, twenty years ago, but they made a lasting and rare kind of impression on me. One just doesn’t see examples of such of any kind, with possibly the exception of somewhere in Vienna, and of that I am only conjecturing? It’s a section of a couple to three dozen houses at most, and no more, somewhere not to far in the periphery — sorry, that’s all I can tell you. Worth seeking out just as Monsieur NPW’s tip about the museum is, as well.

        It’s so wonderful to hear of productions from the smaller houses around the world, as there’s so much being done of interest and preferable to a lot of what I get “treated” to in the world’s largest opera box. I only wish you’d keep on reporting in here as I similarly do with anyone else able and willing to do so. Have fun at your return! And don’t forget to get the chocolates as they are the best in the world as so are their frites! Well, maybe those are all available in Bruxelles as wells!