In mythical times, the ruler of the realm visits the stranger in his cell to deliver a death sentence for incitement of the people. When the ruler has departed, his wife Heliane slips into the cell, she lets down her hair and exposes her bare feet. When the ruler returns he sees his wife standing naked in front of the prisoner, Heliane informs the executioner that she desired the stranger, but did not touch him. The stranger is asked to make a statement but only agrees if he can ﬁrst be alone with Heliane for a moment. Once the court has left the chamber, the stranger kisses Heliane and takes his own life with her dagger. Heliane is accused of murder and without witnesses the ruler proclaims to the enraged crowd that only God can prove Heliane’s innocence and that she must bring the stranger back to life. The resurrection is however not undertaken: Heliane considers it presumptuous to act in the manner of God giving back life and is prepared to be burnt at the stake. At the last minute, a miracle does however occur: the stranger rises from the dead and embraces Heliane. The ruler stabs her in a blind rage and loses all his powers. The stranger becomes the new ruler, sends the king into exile and liberates the people. He then ascends to heaven together with Heliane.
Das Wunder der Heliane [The Miracle of Heliane] is based on the mystery play Die Heilige [ The Saint] written by the Austrian poet Hans Kaltneker. Korngold is said to have come across the manuscript in 1923, but it is now presumed lost. The drama of Heliane was transformed into a libretto by the author Hans Müller-Einigen who also compiled the text for Violanta in 1916. Das Wunder der Heliane was given its ﬁrst performance on 7 October 1927 conducted by Egon Pollak at the Hamburg State Opera and was received favourably by both audiences and critics. Unfortunately, the opera’s premiere in Vienna less than three weeks later did not meet with such a positive response though Korngold’s father Julius played a part in these circumstances. In his capacity as a journalist, he had attempted to prevent the performance of Ernst Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf [Jonny plays] in February of the same year, thereby turning a large proportion of Viennese society against the Korngold family. Das Wunder der Heliane is a pinnacle within Late Romantic music whose opulence was not surpassed, Korngold was at the height of his skills in orchestration and his depiction of moods and creation of interwoven leitmotifs was exemplary. Korngold succeeds in containing harmonic atonality through tangible melodies and deprives the chords of their functional harmonic basis while simultaneously providing orientation for the ear. This intrinsically creates a sense of familiarity for the actually borderline characteristics of the music. The similarity to Salome by Richard Strauss is clearly evident. The dungeon containing a prisoner, a ﬁgure who fascinates people and prompts uneasiness in the ruler can be compared to Jesus Christ and the pairing with erotically charged music and the motif of undressing constitute a reﬂection of Strauss’s 1905 masterpiece. And yet where Oscar Wilde and Strauss depict a passionate individual demanding death, Korngold and the author Müller-Einigen instead focus on the representation of love which can overcome death. Das Wunder der Heliane can alternatively be understood as a celebration of the resurrection. Heliane is a virgin; the glassy tone of celesta and harps underline her purity. Her royal spouse suffers from the fact that she refuses to give herself to him. On seeing her naked before a stranger, the king curses her as a whore who can only cleanse herself if she can become a saint and raise the stranger from the dead. Heliane reacts to this arrogance in an unexpected fashion. She defends her love of the stranger which is neither Madonna-like and purely spiritual in nature nor devilish and purely based on a physical level. This is a form of human love uniting both categories and therefore does not deserve punishment or demand adoration. The alteration of the title from Die Heilige [The Saint] in the original drama to Das Wunder der Heliane [The Miracle of Heliane] was certainly no coincidence. The opera was subsequently performed in twelve different opera houses which in itself represented success. For Korngold, spoiled by the triumphal march of his Tote Stadt, the comparatively lukewarm reception appeared in his eyes to be very close to rejection. Following the premiere of Heliane, Korngold increased his focus on his arrangements of operettas, only commencing work on a new opera, Die Kathrin, ﬁve years later. He had been heart-stricken by the apparent failure of Das Wunder der Heliane which he considered at the time as his principle work. The opera was not performed again until 1970 in Gent. While the work was subsequently mostly heard in concert performances, staged productions have been on the increase since the turn of the millennium. The opera was recently performed by Vlaamse Opera in Gent (2017), Deutsche Oper in Berlin (2018) and at the opera house in Lübeck (2019).
Bühnenmusik: 6 Fanfarentrp. · 3 Trp. · 3 Pos. - S. (Glsp. · Gl. · Glockenklav.)