What do you do when laughter is not allowed in your country and love is punishable by death? Where everything, absolutely everything that gives colour to life, is banned? And what do you do when one day a Stranger appears who teaches the people what joy is, and for this the Ruler of the land (who also happens to be your hated husband) condemns him to death? You visit that man in his cell and then you discover the most beautiful and the most important thing: love?! You are caught, the death penalty follows, but if you are really innocent then a miracle has to happen. And it does happen!, after which you and The Stranger go to heaven together.
Das Wunder der Heliane was Korngold’s fourth opera and it was undoubtedly his most ambitious project. The libretto may seem a little bizarre, but you have to look at it through the eyes of the ‘zeitgeist’ of the time. The mysterious, the unearthly, the supernatural, the divine, the exaggerated emotions, the decadence and the undisguised eroticism… all this can be seen in many works of art of the time. Also the spirit of sacrifice and the notion that love conquers all: if not now, then in the hereafter. And the bright colours with lots of gold. The score also represents all this..
The premiere of ‘Heliane’ took place in Hamburg in 1927 and it was repeated three weeks later in Vienna. Heliane was sung by Lotte Lehmann and the role of The Stranger by Jan Kiepura, a lyric tenor.
According to Brendan Carroll, the Korngold biographer and connoisseur, the aria ‘Ich ging zu Ihm’ is the “musical expression of sexual ecstasy, comparable only to similar passages in Tristan und Isolde.
Below: Lotte Lehmann sings ‘Ich ging zu Ihm’
The role of Heliane, the only character in the opera who has a name, is a real tour de force, especially as she has to be on stage almost during the entire opera. The role calls for a strong dramatic soprano with a dominant lyricism in her voice. Leave that to Annemarie Kremer! Her soprano is dark, her height impeccable and her sensuality evident. Add to that her brilliant understanding of the text: from the very first note she manages to ‘grab’ you and make you fall in love with her (and her character!). No doubt about it: Kremer is the born interpreter for the fin de siècle repertoire.
Annemarie Kremer in ‘Ich ging zu Ihm’:
Unfortunately Ian Storey (The Stranger) is not on the same level. All the notes are there, but the feeling of listening to something special is missing. His voice is too Wagnerian and too little Puccini. Something that this role absolutely needs. It is true that the sound must be big, but his voice lacks the sweet tones, the beautiful and seductive sounds.
Do you remember who was the first interpreter of that role? Well, yes, that is what is needed here.
Aris Argiris, on the other hand, is a magnificent Ruler. His very impressive baritone sounds are authoritarian and he knows how to convey his overpowering jealousy. He is truly wonderful.
Katerina Hebelková is a very good messenger and the minor roles are also well performed. The orchestra occasionally sounds too loud and sometimes I think the balance is off. Could it be the recording?
Puccini about Korngold: “He has so much talent that he can easily give us half and still keep enough for himself.” And that’s true. Hurry to the shops and bring ‘Heliane’ into your home. You will not regret it.
Trailer of the recording:
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Das Wunder der Heliane
Annemarie Kremer, Ian Storey, Aris Argiris, Katerina Hebelková and others.
Opernchor und Extrachor of the Theater Freiburg
Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg conducted by Fabrice Bollon
Annemarie Kremer zal in september 2023 de rol van Heliane zingen bij de Reisopera. Hopelijk komt ze ook naar Amsterdam. Ik vermoed dat ik dit ook al heb vermeld bij de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel.
Jan Kiepura sang in the premiere of Heliane? Had Korngold and Kiepura met when in Europe, or later, when they both found themselves in the States?
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Yes, of course.
Korngold wrote for Kiepura and he sang all his tenor roles.
They’ve met again (o irony) at the last ship from Europe to US.
As you know Kiepura and his wife were Jewish
I can only imagine the meeting of both artists.
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