Every August for 30 years Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson has presented a summer event devoted to the detailed study—via lecture panels and a rich panoply of performances—to the life and works of a single specific composer. At the start of each such festival, which for the last 16 years has been called the Bard SummerScape, Princeton University Press issues a book prepared in conjunction with the event, containing significant new articles about the year’s featured composer “and his world,” as well as a substantial number of biographical source documents that have never been previously published in English. Over the years, all of the “usual suspects” have been covered—from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, to Janàček, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Sibelius, and so on. And the list has included a growing number of figures who are, by one measurement or another, outside the core of “important” composers—and for whom representation in the summer festival-conference marks a significant point in serious reconsideration. Such composers in recent years have included Saint-Saëns, Chavez, Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov—and, this year, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Korngold’s career as a child prodigy got off to a brilliant start, especially with the first performance of his one-act operas The Ring of Polykrates and Violanta (which Puccini admired) at age 19. Soon after, his opera Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), made him world famous; the Metropolitan Opera produced it in 1921. Already as a child of nine, he had been declared a “genius” by Mahler, had studied with the leading Viennese teachers, and had started publishing piano music, chamber works, and composing operas.
The composer considered his next opera after Die tote Stadt to be his masterpiece in the genre. Das Wunder der Heliane enjoyed a substantial success at its 1927 Hamburg premiere, but this was not repeated elsewhere. The subject matter is somewhat bizarre, especially for a Jewish composer (though he was not a practicing believer). Hans Müller’s libretto, based on a manuscript by one Hans Kaltneker resembled a Medieval mystery play (like Everyman), with characters that symbolize certain virtues or vices, rather than possessing fully-rounded personalities. Only Heliane has a name. The theme is the power of love, and the opera contains no fewer than two resurrections!
In her biography of the composer, Jessica Duchen suggests that the story may have attracted Korngold because at just that time he wished to marry a woman of whom his father, the powerful Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, disapproved—rather as Leopold Mozart kept trying to discourage Wolfgang away from marriage, to devote himself to art rather than the demands of family life. Both young composers evaded their father’s strictures, and Korngold had a particularly happy marriage with his Luzi.
The opera is so little known that a brief summary of the plot is essential.
Das Wunder des Heliane is set in a nameless country in which a totalitarian Ruler is utterly cruel, owing to his inability to arouse love in his wife, Heliane. His cruelty is especially aimed at those who praise or express love. The first act takes place in a dungeon where he is threatening with death, a young Stranger whose popularity has roused the Ruler’s envy and anger. The Stranger begs for his life, without success. When her husband has left, Heliane, curious about this remarkable prisoner, slips into the cell. Strangely drawn to him, she accedes to his request to unbind her hair, to reveal her white feet, and to stand naked in front of him, though she crucially denies his request to to let him make love to her on his last night. The Ruler enters the cell to offers to spare the Stranger’s life if he can teach the Ruler to win his wife’s love. The Stranger-Prisoner declines. When Heliane returns to the cell and discloses her infatualtion with the Stranger, her furious husband orders her trial for adultery.
The second act takes place in a courtroom, where six judges listen to the evidence presented to a blind chief justice led around by a young boy. A female Messenger (a former mistress of the Ruler) takes sadistic pleasure in arousing his thirst for revenge on Heliane., who under questioning, admits that she felt an attraction to the Stranger, but that her sin was only a matter of thought, not of action. The Stranger is summoned to testify. He asks to be left alone with Heliane. When the others depart, he begs her to kill him, confident that it would save her. She refuses; he stabs himself and falls dead. A crowd of common people rushes into the court to liberate the Stranger for the hope he has brought them. The Ruler, returning, sends the judges away and announces to the people that Heliane will be tried by God: if she is innocent, she will awaken the Stranger from death. Almost in a trance, she agrees.
The final act takes place outside the palace. The Stranger lies on his funeral bier. A crowd watches in eager curiosity and the judges come to witness Heliane’s trial by challenge. When she is expected to effect the miracle of resurrection, Heliane admits that she loved the Stranger. The angry crowd threatens her, but the Ruler declares he will spare her life if she becomes his; she refuses. The crowd is about to drag her to the stake when a sudden blast of thunder holds them back. The body of the Stranger rises from the funeral bier. Heliane pledges her love to him; the Ruler stabs her. The Stranger banishes the Ruler, sets the people free from him, and raises Heliane. Alone together, the two set off on a transcendental journey.
By 1927 subject matter such as this was definitely looking backward, however richly gorgeous the musical score might be. Korngold was by no means the only composer to have a work enjoy a very successful premiere and another couple of productions before slipping largely out of sight, both, no doubt, from competition with more “modern” or “realistic” opera subjects, and the modern musical styles pushing aside the lush orchestras that were Korngold’s stock in trade; the rise of the Nazi party and its determination to destroy “degenerate music”—which involved almost any musical style that was created by Jews, Communists, and other “degenerates,” made the ban altogether certain
Having chosen this odd story, Korngold had to find a way to musicalize it and place it on the stage. Employing ingenious constructivist recombinant moduar scaffoldings, Esther Bialas’s set designs for the three acts matched Korngold’s music beautifully, while evoking Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, usw. Elaine J. McCarthy vivid and evocative projections and Thomas C Hase’s intensely purposeful lighting allowed the stark scenery to become a participant in the drama.
The opera begins in a dungeon—dark, constricted, with a back wall fairly close to the proscenium (it has hidden staircases behind it), and music that matched. The orchestra almost throughout Act I plays dissonant, thick, polyphonic and largely bitonal music generating the enclosed feeling of a prison cell in which a condemned man is held. The only vocal character in the act, in addition to the three principals, is the Porter, who also feels the attractions of Heliane.
Acts II and III get progressively brighter in orchestral color—less textural density, more tunefulness, simpler harmonies, and with dynamics less overwhelming, to allow the voices to be heard more clearly. At the same time, the courtroom scene is laid out in a deeper space, with the six judges amusingly secreted in “pockets” against the back wall, connected by stairs, so that they could move and appear in different patterns—two groups of three, three groups of two, and so on. The Ruler and the Chief Justice spend most of their time in high seats against the walls left and right, while the more spacious middle give room for the accused, the witnesses, and the mob to play.
In Act III, the music gradually becomes glowing and radiant by the end of the opera. The stage is largely open (with an illuminated circular pool in the middle) and the flat walls of the first two acts are broken up and rotated to suggest a series of buildings in a real town with a lively architectural life to it.
The production at Bard was a fine one. Christian Räth’s direction kept the relationships of the major characters straightforward, yet mysterious. Heliane, especially, manages to thread a dangerous line between the violent husband she does not love and the Stranger who evidently captivates her at first sight. The shaping of her personality is the most fascinating aspect of the opera. Movement director Catherine Galasso found imaginative ways to energize the trial scene’s judges in their wall “pockets” and the activity of the chorus members in their mob scenes.
I already mentioned Esther Bialas’s sets, which progressively through the evening mirrored the growing expansiveness of the score. Her costumes, too, set the tone of the unnamed country, with a certain air of fantasy in, for example, the six judges’ red robes with their spreading collars; the principals all had touches of elegance in them, while the rags of the mob distinguished them at once from their “betters.” Only the strange orange Home Depot jumpsuit in which Bialas dressed the prisoner-Stranger struck a sour note.
The American Symphony Orchestra was faced with a very challenging score, shaped and balanced by Leon Botstein, to project the vivid range of Korngold’s orchestral colors, from the brutality of the opening scene in the Stranger’s cell to the luminosity expressing the love of the revivified lovers at the close.
In the largest and most demanding role, vocally and in her dramatic interplay with the Ruler and Stranger, soprano Aušrine Stundyte created an extraordinary Heliane. She is the pure and saintly woman who tranquilly allows the Stranger to persuade her to reveal her body to him in the dungeon cell and who remains self-composed even when put on trial, but whose great aria “Ich ging zu ihm” (“I went to him”) in the second act, expanded in warmth with her passion, which could hardly fail to betray her love. She also allowed herself to be interfered with by ballerinas in a seemingly interpolated lascivious dance of unclear meaning during the interlude that opens the third act.
The rest of the cast provided an excellent balance for her. With dominating, tones Alfred Walker’s Ruler projected his cruelty through stalking gestures and a ruthless manner of dealing with everyone in his kingdom. The Stranger, Daniel Brenna, boasted a strong, clear heldentenor that evoked the brightness of personality required by his character. The remaining principals, Jennifer Feinstein as the Messenger, Nicholas Brownlee as the Porter, and David Cangelosi as the blind Chief Justice gave splendid performances. The six judges Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Michael J. Hawk, Derek Taylor, Kevin Thompson, and Richard Troxell made much impact with coordinated gestures.
It has to be said that the show packs a wallop and is riveting scene to scene with characters and performers who command our attention throughout. And is the story really so alien to the realm of opera plots? Many heroines die to preserve their purity. Think of Halevey’s Jewess. She ends up at the stake after torment by an authoritarian. Tosca, another gal who confronts a brute, also has to die. And if the resurrection business seems to be a stretch for credulity, that’s ok if it’s done with as much style as it was in Bard’s version. Take notice Met Opera.
Three performances remain: (July 31 and August 4 at 2pm, August 2 at 4pm) in the Sosnoff Theater of the Fisher Center at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. “Korngold and His World” runs from August 9-11 and August 16-18, consisting of twelve very diverse programs of music and two panel discussion on the Saturday mornings. The new book associated with the event, Korngold and His World, ed. By Daniel Goldmark and Kevin C. Karnes (Princeton University Press) is also available for sale there, as well as a wide representation of recordings (CD and DVD) of Korngold’s work.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.