Erich Wolfgang Korngold became one of the busiest film composers of all time, once he moved to the United States one step ahead of the Nazis, who immediately declared his music Enterte (contaminated) because of Korngold’s Jewish blood.
But prior to that hasty escape from Germany Korngold was a respected composer, whose opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) was first performed in Hamburg in 1927. Before its premiere in 1927 Korngold proclaimed that this would be his masterwork. But the critics thought otherwise, finding the music much too melodic and not dissonant enough for their taste. Too bad, for had the critical reception be different Das Wunder der Heliane could have enjoyed a much different stage life – its music being writ large and the large-scale writing just perfect for European singers weaned on Wagner and R. Strauss. Lotte Lenya called the title role of this opera, her favorite, and the Bulgarian Wagnerian Anna Tomowa-Simtow performed it in her prime.
Neither Korngold nor his librettist, Hans Mueller give proper names to the male characters, naming them instead: The Ruler, The Stranger and so forth, which tends to make them cipher-like rather than flesh and blood beings. The plot is fantastical, full of supernatural events, twists and turns, and the kind of symbolism much in vogue in the Germany of the first quarter of the twentieth century, including a last minute rise from the dead that affords both the tenor and soprano to ascend to the heavens for an eternal union.
Aris Argiris is a true-blue Heldenbariton with the endurance of a thoroughbred and a stentorian sound. Soprano, Annemaria Kremer sings a lovely Heliane, frequently spinning out ethereal sounds when needed. Tenor, Ian Storey delivers a convincing performance as The Stranger, holding up just fine in a part that sounds at times as if it were written for a Heldentenor. The supporting cast of mostly male singers satisfactorily fulfills its duties.
But it is the Philharmonic Orchestra Freiburg, the massive choral forces and Fabrice Bollon, their conductor who are the heart and soul of this three-CD Naxos release. The score is huge, densely orchestrated and replete with climactic moments. Maestro Bolton leads a nicely-paced reading, beautifully balancing all the artists at his command in a most satisfying performance worthy of a place in the libraries of opera connoisseurs.
Rafael de Acha