The Bard Music Festival annually explores a significant composer “and His World,” as the rubric puts it, thereby embracing the cultural milieu in which he operated. This year’s festival, centered on the Viennese composer Erich Korngold (1898–1957), could have been called “Korngold and His Worlds,” so distinctly did his career cleave into two parts. A child prodigy, he found success early. Simultaneous premieres of his best-known opera, Die tote Stadt (1920), in Hamburg and Cologne established him as one of Europe’s most sought-after composers.
Like other Jewish composers, he left Europe for the United States in the 1930s, although few attained success comparable to his. As a composer of film scores, he supplied music for a number of Hollywood swashbucklers, often with stars such as Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. His European music was sometimes said to sound like movie music (at a time when such an assessment was not complimentary). But really it is the other way around: his film scores are imbued with the Late Romantic opulence characteristic of his European scores.
In the lead-up to the festival (August 9–18), its sister series, Bard SummerScape, gave the U.S. premiere of Karngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane)at the Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. (I saw the work on July 31.) In the past, the featured opera at Bard has been drawn from the “and His World” side of the spectrum, i.e., has been a work by an important contemporary. But there was good reason for choosing this work by Korngold himself. Although it never attained the success of Die tode Stadt, Korngold declared Heliane, first performed in Hamburg in 1927, his greatest work, and an excellent Decca recording from 1993 has long whetted appetites to see it staged. A new production last year at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was well received.
Although Hans Müller-Einigen based his libretto on a “mystery play,” the religious context implied by that genre hardly ruled out the lurid eroticism found in other Germanic operas from the 1910s and ’20s, such as those by Franz Schreker. (In an illuminating program essay Sherry Lee refers to such operas as indicative of “Expressionism’s gushing exorbitance.”) A man, known as “the Stranger,” who won favor with the populace of a dictatorship, has been imprisoned by the Ruler and sentenced to death. When the ruler’s wife, Heliane, appears surreptitiously in the Stranger’s cell, the two establish an immediate rapport, and she ends up disrobing for him. (At the Deutsche Oper the soprano briefly appeared naked, but the stage directions call for her to wear a shift, and she did so here.)
Heliane is put on trial for adultery on orders of the Ruler, now intensely jealous; when the Stranger is summoned to testify, he privately urges Heliane to kill him, thinking this will assuage the Ruler’s rage against her. Upon her refusal, the Stranger kills himself. The ruler, however, commands Heliane to effectuate the Stranger’s resurrection, which would prove her purity and satisfy the angry populace.
For the resurrection scene, the set looked like a medical school anatomy classroom, with all eyes on the Stranger’s body as it awaited Heliane’s miraculous treatment.
At first repulsed by the blasphemy of the idea, Heliane gradually feels herself imbued with divine powers and ecstatically declares that she will reawaken the dead man in the impassioned scene that closes Act II. It is a high point of Korngold’s uneven score. Act I, in particular, fails to generate much excitement despite much orchestral turbulence. Heliane comes to dramatic life in the courtroom of Act II, which includes the opera’s best known piece, Heliane’s tender aria “Ich ging zu ihm”; its tune, which recurs, stands out in an opera that, despite its many surging melodic lines, is not especially tuneful.
The production, directed by Christian Räth, served the opera well. In the opening scene, when the Stranger, dressed in orange and strapped to a stretcher, was brought to the prison, one sensed an updating. Other modern references included a military uniform suggestive of a banana republic for the Ruler. But such references were few and did not detract from a subject clearly from another era. Nor did the modular sets (designed by Esther Bialas, as were the costumes), which weren’t particularly pretty but neatly reconfigured themselves to suggest the multi-tiered courtroom. For the resurrection scene, the set looked like a medical school anatomy classroom, with all eyes on the Stranger’s body as it awaited Heliane’s miraculous treatment.
The Lithuanian soprano Aušrine Stundyte gave a compellingly acted and vocally potent portrayal of Heliane, offering a lovely rendition of “Ich ging zu ihm” and drawing on reserves of power when needed, although her voice sometimes turned edgy at full cry. Daniel Brenna coped admirably with the challenges of the Stranger’s music, which fluctuates between expressive moments that need to be sung quietly and passages requiring ringing tone. Alfred Walker, in a powerful voice, sang with dark, menacing tone as the Ruler, a fundamentally tragic figure who craves nothing more than the love of his wife. Jennifer Feinstein brought character and a handsome mezzo voice to the role of the Messenger, a rejected lover of the Ruler, and David Cangelosi sang vividly as the Blind Judge. Nicholas Brownlee displayed an impressive bass-baritone voice as the prison Porter and was poignant in relating how Heliane—in an act foreshadowing the Stranger’s resurrection—cured his sick son.
Especially in Act I, Leon Botstein, conducting the American Symphony Orchestra in fine form, could have integrated more purposefully Korngold’s myriad thematic ideas into the musical fabric, but he showed a command of the opera’s overall structure and maintained good control over his large orchestral forces. Das Wunder der Heliane was well worth reviving but is unlikely to boost significantly Korngold’s reputation, which never regained its pre-war heights.