The video recording, made at the Deutsche Oper in 2018, of Korngold’s rarely seen Das Wunder der Heliane is yet another lesson in holding off on making judgements on an opera or production until one has seen the whole thing. I still don’t think it’s a lost masterpiece but I’m feeling a lot less derisive than I was at the end of Act I.
There are two big problems. The biggest is the plot/libretto. We are in a kingdom where happiness is forbidden. A sort of mystic fool/Christ figure, der Fremde, shows up and starts preaching Love and Joy. The Ruler condemns him to death. On the night before his execution the queen, Heliane, goes to visit him to express sympathy. She does this by getting naked and much Heldentenor groping ensues. She disappears and the king shows up. He confesses to the stranger that he has never slept with the queen. Indeed he’s never seen her naked. If the stranger will use his strange arts to get the queen into his bed he will not only go free but he will get to see her naked. Ah! The queen reappears and the king accuses her of adultery and demands that they both stand trial. Meanwhile a heavenly choir is singing about love transcending death and the orchestra is playing swelling chords and tumescent arpeggios while the stranger sings his lungs out at the loudest and highest end of his Fach; the second problem. This is Act 1. At this point I’m thinking “suppose you gave a young Richard Strauss (some of the writing for woodwinds sounds a bit like Die Frau ohne Schatten) a stack of porno mags a Dummy’s Guide to Freud and a lot of cocaine…
It does get better even if the plot stays pretty implausible. The stranger begs Heliane to kill him and when she won’t he stabs himself. The king is beside himself since the only person he trusts to testify that the queen is “pure” is now dead. He decides that the queen must prove her “purity” by bringing the dead man back to life. Somewhere in this the people invade the palace demanding the freedom of their, now dead, hero. Some of the music in here is more restrained and much more attractive than the seriously overblown first act.
The third act starts with the people imploring God to help Heliane do the Lazarus thing. She starts but then stops and confesses her love for the stranger while taking most of her clothes off again. “To the stake!”, the mob cries but the stranger comes to life, banishes the king, legislates universal happiness, forgives everyone and goes off to Heaven with Heliane. There’s actually some very effective dramatic music in this act and some quite lovely lyrical stuff; especially the final duet. The audience in the house when this was recorded lapped it up so maybe it’s easier to get drawn in in the house than when watching it on video.
The Berlin production and performances make probably the best possible case for it. Instead of the classical trappings of the productions in the 1930s Christof Loy riffs off Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. All the action takes place in the courtroom. It’s very monochrome and Sara Jakubiak, as Heliane, is made to look like Marlene Dietric. It helps balance the rather overblown elements. The singing is good too, especially Jakubiac who has an ideal sort of Jugendlich dramatischer voice for the role. Josef Wagner is good too as the king. Brian Jagde at times is really good as the stranger but especially in act 1 he has to sing high and loud for very long periods. I don’t think anyone would actually sound good singing some of the music. The minor roles are well cast and the chorus acts and sings really well. Marc Albrecht in the pit lets it all hang out. There’s nothing very subtle about the music and the orchestra sounds fine.
The simple set makes video direction easy and Götz Filenius takes a decently straightforward approach. It also means there are no great challenges to picture quality which, on Blu-ray, is excellent. Sound is decent. This is the sort of huge orchestral sound which ultimately only transfers so far to the domestic context. I listened to parts using the surround sound track and speakers and part using the stereo track on headphones. Both are OK but at time a little muddy. That might well have been true in the house too.
There’s some bonus material in the form of a contemporary sound recording of the Act III Zwischenspiel and assorted Korngold memorabilia. The booklet is quite informative with lots of information about the politics surrounding the early performances plus a synopsis, bios and track listing.
Ultimately I can’t recommend watching this work on video disk. Maybe a live performance could at least partially transcend its obvious weaknesses but they are still just too much on disk.