Notes and Editorial Reviews
A bold, interesting issue. Korngold's previous opera, Die tote Stadt, has been revived with success, but he thought Das Wunder der Heliane his masterpiece. All that most people know of it is the emotional ''Ich ging zu ihm'', recorded by Lotte Lehmann, the first Vienna Heliane. The opera appeared in 1927, the year also of Jonny spielt auf (see below) and Oedipus Rex. It made the rounds for a while, but not as widely as Die tote Stadt. Korngold—no longer the wonder-child praised by Mahler, Strauss, Puccini and Ernest Newman; conducted by Nikisch, Weingartner and Walter—turned to the adaptation and conducting of operettas. Later, in Hollywood, he composed scores for the Errol Flynn epics and, in 1945, a concerto for Heifetz. Two campaigns are credited with scuttling Heliane. The critic Julius Korngold—Hanslick's successor, scourge of Strauss and Schoenberg, champion of his son's music—waged war on Jonny; he recruited the Nazis as his allies, and then they turned against both composers. But Heliane itself was a very late fruit of ripe—overripe—erotic romanticism in the line of d'Albert, Zemlinsky and Schreker.
A Stranger from the south—a version of Dionysus—is imprisoned in a harsh, bleak country. Heliane, the wife of the tyrant Ruler, visits him; at his request she lets down her long golden hair; bares her little white feet so that he can kiss them; then grants his request to reveal her body. (''It was done very discreetly,'' Lehmann says; the soprano has seven pages of score in the buff, not just the moments assigned to Thais and Salome.) But the Ruler appears and, seeing his wife naked (which he has not done before, since he's never known her love), orders her arrest. Act 2 is her trial for adultery, and ''Ich ging zu ihm'' her defence: she recounts the events of Act 1 and declares that only mentally, not physically, did she give herself to the Stranger. The lovers are allowed a last moment together, and at the close of their duet the Stranger stabs himself. In Act 3 Heliane must prove her innocence by bringing him to life. She does so: he rises from his bier, but the jealous Ruler stabs her. The scene changes: ''the air is transparent, a snow of flower-petals falls'', and Heliane has also returned to life. After a last, tender duet the lovers again expire, into Eternal Love.
An expanded Adonis rite, a Resurrection allegory? (At the start a mystic chorus, accompanied by organ and harps, sings ''Blessed are they that love, for death shall not claim them''.) The music is sonically rich. Korngold has absorbed techniques of Mahler, Strauss and Puccini. He composes fluently, copiously, on tonal bases with lush harmonies of bitonality and added notes, and he scores exuberantly for a very large orchestra (with off-stage brass and bells and a heavenly choir). One may become a little impatient at times: Korngold's inspiration is uneven, and he does go on in not only the ecstatic but also the angry scenes. In the theatre, cuts might be welcome; on record we want the whole thing, and here the long opera is given complete.
Decca have done the piece proud. The recording is wide-ranging. John Mauceri conducts with conviction and with enthusiasm (perhaps a bit too much of it at times). Choral sopranos sail fearlessly to high C sharp. Anna Tomowa-Sintow is a delicate, touching heroine, lacking only full, easy radiance of tone for soaring climaxes. John David de Haan does well as the ardent, lyric-heroic Stranger (Jan Kiepura, soon after his celebrated Calaf, sang the role in Vienna). Hartmut Welker, the Ruler, is firm and strong but inclined to bluster: though violence is implicit in the role, he tends to overdo it, and his loving aria in Act 2 comes as relief. So does the gentler music of the Porter, warmly sung by Rene Pape. The small parts are taken with distinction.
-- Gramophone (4/1993)
review of the original release
This reissue does not include a libretto.