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Work of the Week – Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane

The rediscovery continues: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's long-forgotten opera Das Wunder der Heliane (“The Miracle of Heliane”) has experienced a renaissance in recent years. This is evidenced by performances in Brno, Ghent, Freiburg and at the Bard Festival in New York State. Even the Deutsche Oper Berlin production was released on Blu-ray and received the "Rediscovery of the Year" award from Opernwelt magazine in 2019. 

A new version of the piece is now being premiered: The Nederlandse Reisopera presents Das Wunder der Heliane in a version for medium orchestra by Fergus McAlpine. This means that smaller opera houses can now also perform the piece.The premiere will take place in Enschede on September 30.

With Das Wunder der Heliane, Korngold wanted to follow up on his successful opera Die tote Stadt, which premiered in 1920 and saw numerous performances in the European-American region in the years that followed. The premiere of Heliane in Hamburg in 1927 was a success, but further performances were received very ambivalently. After the National Socialists banned performances in Germany, Korngold's music quickly fell into oblivion.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Heliane is married to a tyrannical ruler, but she does not love him. One night, while comforting a stranger on death row, she falls in love with him. The public becomes aware of their love, and both Heliane and the stranger are sentenced to death. Eventually, the man dies by suicide. Heliane is given the chance to spare her own life by denying her love for the stranger and reawakening him. However, she remains loyal to her love and chooses to face her execution.  When the people finally decide to carry out her execution, the Stranger awakens with a thunderous clap. They ascend to heaven together, with love triumphing over death and breaking the tyrant's rule.

A new version of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane: Love conquers death and tyranny

Heliane's character in the opera is depicted as a saint, as evidenced by the play's title "Die Heilige" ("The Saint") by Hans Kaltneker. Along with her lover, she represents genuine, unadulterated love that has the power to overcome the tyrannical rule of her husband. While the symbols utilized in the opera are not novel to the operatic stage, "The Miracle of Heliane" deviates from the norms of its time of creation, where lifelike subject matter was favored, due to its enchantingly overburdened plot.

The believable "miracle of Heliane" is her music. It floods the textbook, surges through the acts, sweeps the scene along with it and the clutter of dramaturgy. She pours melodies into the characters so that they overflow with song. - Critic Elsa Bienenfeld after the Viennese premiere in 1927

The impressive power of Das Wunder der Heliane is largely attributed to Korngold's diverse orchestration. The orchestration effectively depicts varying characters and moods with moments of harsh, abrupt, and dramatic instrumentation contrasted with soft and warm tones. Korngold handles harmony by pushing the boundaries of tonality, utilizing distant keys and exploring their unique sonic properties. Additionally, bitonal musical planes are layered to serve as a compositional principle in his work. All the intricacies of the orchestral composition, meticulously translated to a small ensemble, are equally present in the new version for reduced orchestra.

Jac van Steen is conducting the Nederlandse Reisopera’s production, staged by director Jakob Peters-Messer. Following the premiere in Enschede, the ensemble will embark on a tour with Das Wunder der Heliane, delivering performances until November 11 in Eindhoven, Maastricht, Leeuwarden, Utrecht, Breda, Zwolle, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Apeldoorn.


Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Composer Profile

Das Wunder der Heliane: Work details and online score of the new version

Website Nederlandse Reisopera 

Illustration: Nederlandse Reisopera