Neglected Opera By Korngold Turns Out To Be A Gem

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Sara Jakubiak sings the title role in the Deutsche Oper Berlin staging of Korngold’s ‘Das Wunder der Heliane.’
(Production photos: Deutsche Oper Berlin/©Monika Rittershaus)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – In what can only be hoped will be a comeback for a neglected masterpiece, the Deutsche Oper staged Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane for the first time in nine decades on March 18. The opera, which had its world premiere at the Hamburg State Opera in 1927, struggled to secure its place in the repertoire even after its Berlin premiere in 1928 under Bruno Walter. Korngold – born in the modern-day Czech Republic – would subsequently be banned by the Nazis, only to become a pioneer of the symphonic film score in Hollywood.

Heliane (Sara Jakubiak) and the Stranger (Brian Jagde)

Even more than Die tote Stadt, Korngold’s best-known opera, Das Wunder der Heliane reveals the composer’s dramatic powers at their height. Chromatic harmonies seamlessly underlie heaving, lyrical melodies, absorbing and transforming the Romantic tradition of both the Italian and German schools. The instrumentation creates vivid portraits of the main characters, from the bare rhythmic passages that accompany the loveless, authoritarian Ruler to the shimmering, otherworldly textures that underscore his wife, Heliane, a kind of angel and femme fatale wrapped up in one.

The libretto by Austrian writer Hans Müller-Einigen is a parable that explores the boundary between religion and eroticism, life and death. A Messiah-like Stranger has been placed behind bars for attempting to bring joy to the people of this unnamed land. Visited by Heliane, he becomes the first to touch her naked body (and the score implies that more takes place). When the Ruler places Heliane on trial, the Stranger kills himself, only to be brought back to life by Heliane as proof of her innocence. The people turn on the Ruler, who stabs Heliane in vengeance, releasing her and the Stranger into the realm of the beyond.

The symbolism of Heliane’s nudity was scandalous in the 1920s, upending Christian values about chastity and purity (in the end, she is not persecuted but – depending on one’s interpretation – may even gain immortality). In this new production, soprano Sara Jakubiak literally strips down to nothing and offers herself to the Stranger (Brian Jagde).

Heliane (Sara Jakubiak) and the Ruler (Josef Wagner)

Both physically and vocally, Jakubiak abandons herself to the role. Her tone is now sultry, now angelic, with all the weight it needs to carry above the sometimes roaring house orchestra but also the sweetness to execute Korngold’s tender melodies. In the Act 2 aria “Ich ging zu ihm” (made famous by such sopranos as Lotte Lehmann and Renée Fleming), she seemed to dissolve into the music’s shifting harmonies, swept up in the passion of recollecting her encounter with the Stranger.

Jagde also was moving, bringing clear German diction, a powerful spinto timbre, and the urgency this music demands. “Give me death for her life!” he exclaims in the courtroom scene of Act 2. As the sinister Ruler, Josef Wagner gave an equally outstanding performance, his booming baritone casting a shadow over the happiness of the lovers.

Mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau was a commanding presence as the messenger who rouses the crowd against Heliane, and house ensemble member Derek Welton made an earnest Doorman. Another ensemble member, Burkhard Ulrich, brought an appropriately nasal timbre to the Blind Judge, while the sextet of judges (Andrew Dickinson, Dean Murphy, Thomas Florio, Clemens Bieber, Philipp Jekal, and Stephen Bronk) formed a homogeneous entity. Offstage choirs lent a mystic feel, while the full house chorus was often too loud as it gathered onstage to witness Heliane’s trial.

The Stranger (Brian Jagde), from left, Heliane (Sara Jakubiak), the Ruler (Josef Wagner)

Stage director Christof Loy creates believable character portraits both among the leads and chorus members. In an interesting touch, the crowd drops to its knees and falls into slumber after Heliane has revealed her powers. The only unfortunate decision of the production is to cast the entire action in a modern-day, bureaucratic conference room (sets by Johannes Leiacker). There is no distinction between the prison barracks of the first act and the courtroom of the third. The room’s dark wood-paneled walls are far too banal for the mystical dimensions of Korngold’s score. Sensitive lighting by Olaf Winter, by contrast, adds a touch of mystery.

The house orchestra under guest conductor Marc Albrecht performed with increasingly refined textures over the course of the evening, bringing out the film-like qualities of the interlude that opens Act 3. Korngold’s score builds into one rapturous climax after another, plunging the listener into a kind of cosmic love that unites Heliane and the Stranger. When he rises from the dead, a brass fanfare somewhat ironically signals victory, only to cede to a solo violin that brings a sense of both tragedy and release. The evening’s high musical standards helped counteract the gloomy fact that Das Wunder der Heliane was the last of his operas Korngold saw staged in the German-speaking world.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.