|Ausrine Stundyte and Daniel Brenna in Erich Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane|
(Photo by Stephanie Berger)
It seems to be a miracle when an opera lays dormant for nearly a century and finally makes it to the stage. For such miracles we count on Maestro Leon Botstein who has made it his mission to bring works out of the dark and into the light for his summer adventure Bard Summerscape. We make it our business to make the lengthy bus trip up to Annandale-on-the-Hudson at least once each year. Sometimes we are thrilled; sometimes we are not.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy in his native Germany and achieved success as a teenager. Die tote Stadt is oft performed and remains famous for two arias--"Marietta's Lied" and "Pierrots Tanzlied". His Das Wunder der Heliane premiered in 1927 and met with critical disdain although several members of the opera community heaped high praise on the work.
Due to Nazi suppression, the work fell into obscurity until recently and last night was its American premiere which we did not want to miss. The work is famous primarily for the aria "Ich ging zu ihm" which one can hear on YouTube sung by Renée Fleming and by Lotte Lehmann. Take your pick. Listen to both.
The story is a strange one with the libretto written by Hans Müller-Einigen. A totalitarian ruler is bitter over his unconsummated marriage with Heliane. He is also disturbed by a messianic stranger who has brought joy to the repressed populace. He wants the stranger dead.
Heliane goes to comfort him on his last night on earth and becomes captivated by him. She grants him the favors he requests--to show her hair, her bare feet, and her body. She refuses him lovemaking.
The ruler is infuriated and wants them both dead. There is a trial in which Heliane can prove her chastity by raising the stranger from death. She does but there is a lot of stabbing and shifting responses by the populace. It was difficult to determine what exactly happened at the end but perhaps the couple found love on another plane.
The music has been described as lush and romantic; we found it muscular and dissonant. There is no denying that the music is "interesting" and Maestro Botstein succeeded in bringing out the details of the colorful orchestration. We heard lots of Straussian influence. There were pockets of lyricism which we did enjoy, especially when the harp added its voice. Perhaps it takes several hearings of the score to get "friendly" with this type of music. It is not instantly relatable.
In the titular role, soprano Ausrine Stundyte looked as fine as she sounded and was as convincingly innocent as one could hope for. As The Ruler, bass-baritone Alfred Walker gave his customarily fine performance, singing with rich resonant tone and creating a brutal tyrant. Heldentenor Daniel Brenna pushed his voice in the upper register and failed to create a compelling figure onstage, i.e. someone who could beguile a populace. As in Siegfried, the role would seem to beg for a sweet-voice lyric tenor who could never be heard over the densely textured orchestration! A real Catch-22.
We have always liked mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein who created a very nasty and vengeful Messenger. Tenor David Cangelosi was excellent as The Blind Judge who turns out to be Heliane's father. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee made a fine impression as The Porter.
The other judges at the trial, rather peculiarly costumed, comprised Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Michael J. Hawk, Derek Taylor, Kevin Thompson, and Richard Troxell.
Stage Director Christian Räth had his work cut out for him, making sense of this odd story. Esther Bialas, whose costume design we so admired in the Mostly Mozart Magic Flute, dressed the judges in strange red garments with large ruffs around their necks. Heliane looked as innocent as she was meant to look; The Ruler looked as totalitarian as he was meant to look; The Stranger needed something more ethereal or spiritual. Functionaries resembled futuristic airline stewardesses.
Sets were all grey and totalitarian looking with movable towers backed by staircases. Thomas C. Hase's lighting was effective with menacing shadows cast on the rear wall. Under James Bagwell's direction, the chorus sounded fine with beautiful solos from Aine Hakamatsuka and Caroline Miller as Celestial Voices.
Catherine Galasso's choreography was also on the odd side. A "ballet" of the functionaries was just plain ugly with awkward lifts. But Act III opened with a graceful dance for a clutch of women dressed like Heliane who imitated her movements or manipulated her body. We haven't a clue what this was meant to represent but at least it was graceful.
We took a look online at a production from Berlin which was done in contemporary street clothes, making this production look much better.
If 20th c. opera is your thing, there will be four additional performances.
© meche kroop