Das Wunder der Heliane
One thing cannot go unmentioned and that’s the fact that 2017 is a double Korngold anniversary: 120 years old, and 60 years since his death. Revivals are taking place, one of which is his much maligned opera Das Wunder der Heliane, a superb concert performance of which I enjoyed at Vienna’s Volksoper earlier this year. Their cast was first rate and I heard the opera with new ears.
Having produced the recording as the first official release of Decca’s series “Entartete Musik”, (together with Krenek’s Jonny spielt Auf!), I thought I had a fair grasp of the dynamics of the work as theatre. I was wrong: watching it and following the surtitles with the music made me change my view of the work almost entirely. In fact, John Mauceri pointed out during the recording that the work reflected the liberated sexual freedom of Korngold’s marriage as it was composed in those intoxicating opening months of Erich Wolfgang’s marriage to the film actress Luzi von Sonnenthal. Though their correspondence suggests there had been pre-marriage dalliances, these could not compare with the unrestricted physical access afforded by legal wedlock. If anything, Heliane is a paean to the sexual act – an attempt to purify it from the seedy connotations that society and religion had heaped upon it. Mauceri remarked upon this aspect of the work during the recording and at the time, I thought he was just being facetious – watching and listening and understanding every word of the text with the added distance of time, I now recognise that this was indeed the case.
My earlier thoughts about the work had been more metaphorical about love vs. cruelty; light vs. dark and all of the metaphysical things that seemed appropriate. No. Heliane is about sex, and how the sexual act is the holiest of holies when carried out between people in love. In fact, I had never quite registered how direct the text was on this point.
Critics are quick to condemn Heliane on two points: one is the fact that it sounds like “Hollywood” and two: the plot is embarrassing nonsense. The first point is easily taken care of: Heliane was composed the best part of a decade before Korngold delivered his first original film score. In fact, the argument needs to be turned around: Hollywood sounds like Heliane – and in fact, Korngold often resorted to expressive devices in Heliane untried and indeed impossible in any of his Hollywood films. In opera, he could determine how much time he needed to build and release – in the studio, this was imposed upon him. His “excesses” in Hollywood are of the moment. They may be passages with twelve harps, or galvanising fanfares. In Heliane, the “excesses” are in emotional build-up and climax, spanned over a musical structure that no film could support.
But the second point is interesting: the story of Heliane appears to resemble George Benjamin’s recently acclaimed Written on Skin. Both works are based on a “mediaeval mystery play”. Yet the similarities are so striking that I can’t believe there isn’t a “Meister Eckhart” connection. British critics were hugging themselves upon hearing Written on Skin, while admitting to having a lie-down for hours in darkened rooms following a concert performance of Heliane given by the London Philharmonic in 2007. I found the music to Benjamin’s opera almost diegetic in its application – more sound-effects surrounding the story than actual drama carried by music. Yet in both operas we have older men who are respectively known as “the Ruler” or “Herrscher” in Heliane and the “Protector” in Written on Skin. In Heliane we have “the Stranger”, who’s a youth of mysterious origin while in the Benjamin opera this character is called “the boy”, also of mysterious origin. In both operas, the female lead is the only protagonist accorded a name: “Heliane” and “Agnès”. In both operas, there is the ambivalence of the sexually frustrated older man implicitly encouraging the younger couple to make love. In both operas, the older man is unable to have sex with his wife. When the younger couple appear to have had sex and their union is revealed as pure, both are killed by the Ruler (Heliane) or Protector (Written on Skin). Angels accompany the youngsters to a higher realm with the understanding that the mysterious Stranger/boy was always from another world.
I’m grateful to Lis Malina who recently published a collection of Korngold’s letters, for allowing me access to her research about the original Kaltneker treatment of Heliane. First a word about the poet: Hans Kaltneker was born Hans Kaltneke von Wahlkampf in 1895 in the Hungarian-Romanian city of Timişoara to a military father and an Italian mother, Leonie. In 1906 the family moved to Vienna. Paul Zsolnay was a school friend and would later become his publisher. 1912, Kaltneker von Wahlkampf was diagnosed with tuberculosis and in 1915 met a fellow patient at the sanatorium in Davos named Alfred Georg Hermann Henschke, but popularly known as Klabund.
Kaltneker was already writing verse and soon followed with several mediaeval Meister Eckhart influenced “Mystery Plays”. In addition, and while severely afflicted with TB, Kaltneker took his examination to the Austrian bar which was passed with honours in 1917. It was also the year he started to write his play Die Heilige (The Saint). It’s a manuscript of only 30 pages and like most of Zsolnay’s unpublished manuscripts, it was lost or perhaps just thrown away in the years following the war. Nevertheless, in 1949, it appears to have still been around for a dissertation that was never completed by Otto Rembold whose widow passed on a copy to Lis Malina. On the basis of Rembold’s dissertation, Lis Malina was able to highlight the differences between the original Kaltneker text and the re-working of the libretto by Hans Müller, as commissioned by Erich and most probably, Julius Korngold, who in his memoirs makes disparaging remarks about the sexual content of the material. (Her article can be downloaded in German on the exil.arte homepage: http://www.exilarte.at/downloads/lis_malina_heliane.pdf)
Kaltneker conceived of Die Heilige as a sung text and he even accorded the voice types to the various protagonists.
Die Heilige/the Saint – Soprano
Der König/ the King – her husband – Baritone
Der junge Gefangener/the young prisoner – Tenor
Der Kerkermeister/The Jailer – Bass
Der Hauptmann/The Sergeant – Baritone
Ein Kriegsknecht/the soldier – Tenor
Die Richter/The Judge – Tenor, Baritone, 2 Basses (can be left out if necessary)
Der Herold/the Herold – Baritone
Der Bischof/The Bishop – Spoken role(can be left out if necessary)
Der Erzengel/The Archangel – Tenor
Kriegsknechte und Henker/Soldiers and executioners
Klerus/The clergy (if not permitted by the censor, leave out)
Gefolge, Volk, Frauen/followers, the people and women
The time: the Gothic of legends
It would be far too easy to say that the Jewish, gay writer Hans Müller-Einigen (henceforth, known as Müller) was not of the same high literary standard as Kaltneker. This is certainly implied by some post-war literary scholars. During the opening decades of the 20th century, however, Müller was one of the most highly regarded playwrights in German with works premiering at Vienna’s Burgtheater and taken up across the German-speaking world. His biographical pedigree is full of surprises, cropping up in many unlikely spots, such as Hollywood where Ernst von Lubitsch filmed some of his works in the 1920s, or his co-authoring the text of Zum Weißen Rößl, (The White Horse Inn), or as librettist to the ever popular Walzer Traum by Oscar Straus.
His work often carried effusive homoerotic overtones as in, for example Walzer Traum when a Ruritanian prince arrives to wed a German princess accompanied by his adjutant. It becomes apparent that the prince’s reluctance to have any dealings with his new bride is because he’s already in a relationship with his adjutant. Müller openly shared his life with another man and his ripe use of language would have put off most post-war scholars. Karl Kraus loathed him as a fraud for passing himself off as a writer from the Front during the First World War when in fact he had never bothered to join the army.
Kaltneker’s text would have been too short for full operatic treatment and Müller would have been seen as the logical person to amplify the lush mysticism and underlying eroticism of the original. Though Kaltneker, according to a remark made to Luzi Korngold by his mother, had wished the text to be set by Korngold, his name was missing from the programmes of the Viennese premiere on October 29th, 1927. This would never have been Korngold’s intention as he had already set Kaltneker texts for his Lieder op. 18, which in some instances border on atonality and which mischievously perhaps, he dedicated to his father, the arch-conservative Julius.
Kaltneker admits with a hint of regret in the forward to another mystery play, to being unable to feel sexual attraction for his own sex. With his death in 1919 at the age of only twenty-four, much of the erotic exuberance is therefore characteristic of the time and grew out of a passion for the works of Richard Wagner and a fascination with forbidden, unrequited love which had entered the Zeitgeist of fin de siècle Vienna.
In the Kaltneker original the Stranger is in jail for murdering a man who attempted rape on an unknown woman. On the eve of his execution, the Queen (Die Heilige) visits him and thinks she sees in him her much loved younger brother who died in childhood. He succumbs to the entreaties made by the love-deprived Queen whose sisterly concern turns ever more charged until she throws herself naked into his arms. They’re discovered by the jailer who strangles the young man and places the Queen in chains. A suggestion of consummation is never made in Klatneker’s text. The King, her husband, has never touched her out of respect and fear. He hears of the encounter and when a young man is found dead of plague outside the city gates, he demands that she prove her innocence by raising him up. She thinks she recognises the prisoner in the young man and in her distress admits that she did love him after all, and while being led to the stake, the young man rises up and ascends into the waiting arms of an archangel who is in fact the young prisoner. As the Queen dies, she too is taken into his welcoming arms.
Hans Müller’s reworking of this material gives us an altogether different story. Whatever metaphysical points might be construed, the central premise of both is the purity of the sexual act between people who have the capacity to love. In other words, the sexual act is sanctified by love and not by the worldly mechanism of wedlock. It’s the same message as Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. In Kaltneker’s treatment, the tension between “agape” and “eros” is left open; in Müller’s text, especially given Korngold’s ever-upward modulations in Heliane’s second act aria, the suggestion of agape tipping into eros is more pronounced.
Contrasting this crucial and very central fact, Korngold’s music offers opulence with a thick, sometimes gooey orchestration – indeed, the opening chords are spelled out to resonate as if an organ in a huge basilica followed by a heavenly chorus. (The Benjamin opera also kicks off with angels) In the Kaltneker original, nuns dressed in white pray for a long promised redeeming miracle of love.
(Orchestral and angelic opening of “das Wunder der Heliane”)
There follows what is effectively one of the few solo moments the tenor has – it’s short as he looks through the prison window and watches daily life go by, unable to join in because of his incarceration. The jailer arrives and offers the first motive that runs through the entire work. It’s the “Heliane motive” that returns in her majestic Second Act aria.
(The Jailer with his “Heliane” motif)
The Jailer tells him to expect an important visitor and the Stranger assumes he’s to be pardoned. In fact, the King arrives and instead confirms the death sentence. In Müller’s version, it’s because the Stranger has dared to bring joy and laughter to the people. The King admits that love is unknown to him and without love, he only knows power. He leaves and the distressed Stranger sings another short solo passage that includes many of the motifs of the opera and segues into the entrance of Heliane.
(The Stranger sings prior to the entry of Heliane)
The difference between Müller and Kaltneker is crucial. In Kaltneker, The Queen senses an attraction to the prisoner in whom she thinks she recognises her departed younger brother. The eroticism between brother and sister are an obvious homage to Siegmund and Sieglinde. (and hence the photo of the incestuous twins above from “Game of Thrones”) In both versions the Queen/Heliane presents the prisoner/the Stanger with her hair, her feet and then her naked body. In Kaltneker, they are interrupted by the King’s Sergeant who orders that the prisoner be strangled. In the Müller/Korngold version, it’s the King himself who is confronted with the horror of the wife he’s never dared touch found in the arms of the man who brought joy and laughter to his people. Before being interrupted, however, a lengthy exchange takes place between Heliane and the Stranger which ebbs and flows as he entreats Heliane to grant him one last pleasure, the sight of her hair, the sight of her feet, the sight of her body – all before he meets his executioner. At the climax of this encounter, the heavenly chorus sings “blessed are the lovers”, a repeat of their opening of the opera.
(one of several crucial highpoints in the first act love duet between the Stranger and Heliane”)
The unexpected entrance of the King is one of the most cring inducing moments in all opera, as upon entering the prison cell, he doesn’t see his naked wife and instead appeals to the Stranger to teach him how to subject his wife to his physical demands. If this “bringer of joy”, this “pied piper of rats and women” can show the King how to make love to Heliane, he can go free. The King works himself up into an embarrassing passion and describes in detail how he wishes to take his wife, whose eyes exude “steely innocence, sharp as swords” that repel him. The Stranger replies that he would rather die than offer sexual instruction to the King. The King then retorts that if the Stranger can show him how to subject Heliane to his physical demands, he’ll share Heliane with him. The language is ripe along the lines of “I’ll impart her secrets to you and your eyes can feast on the upturned hillocks of her pale thighs”. At this point the naked Heliane emerges from the shadows of the prison cell and the full horror and indeed, vulnerability of the King is revealed.
Müller interpolates a subplot. In Kaltneker’s original, the king is young but disfigured. In Müller’s version, he’s old and a former mistress now acts as his messenger. She hates Heliane and wishes to regain the King for herself. The opening of the Second Act is Expressionistic with the Messenger bringing him death warrants to sign of all who have broken marital vows and indeed, all young and beautiful lovers in the kingdom are condemned to die. He then sends the Messenger away and prays that God give him justice – one of his few stand-out solos, it slithers about tonally but ultimately moves towards more sensitive Korngold harmonies, presenting briefly a differentiated view of the King’s despair.
(the King’s appeal to God and declaration of love for Heliane)
Judges are called in the middle of the night to pass judgement on an unfaithful wife. Heliane sings her major stand out aria, “ich ging zu ihm” in which she sings of the boy’s beauty and how she was his – in her mind. The Stranger is brought out and pleads for a word with Heliane in secret before he’s executed. He pleads that she kill him so that he can “pass from his night of ecstasy into eternity” suggesting ever so subtly that perhaps it wasn’t just in her mind. They kiss and at the climax of the kiss, he takes a knife from her belt and stabs himself. With his dying breath he’s unable to confirm her innocence to the King and Judges. She continues to maintain her innocence and God is called to judge by demanding a miracle of Heliane – she must raise the Stranger from the dead.
(Heliane’s aria from “Schön war der Knabe” – “how beautiful the boy was” In this extract, sung by Renée Fleming)
The last act is the most cinematic, but not in the style of Hollywood, in the style of what opera was capable of at the time and already experienced in the Second Act of Franz Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang, with multi-dimensional multi-directional events happening concurrently. Before cinema and sound were thought of, opera was the vehicle for extending and expanding actions and emotions running in parallel. Different choruses and instrumental groups from different perspectives added to both the sensual as well as aural dislocation. It anticipated the power of surround-sound cinema by decades. An example of this would be the entrance of the judges in Act III prior to Heliane’s miracle:
(The fanfares accompanying the entry of the judges the place of execution)
A substantial Prelude introduces the final act, occasionally performed as a stand along orchestral number and the act opens while the crowd brays for blood. The Messenger has whipped them up to a frenzy of anger against Heliane until the jailer sings one of the most beautiful standout arias of the entire opera. He describes how Heliane healed his dying child, already anticipating the hope that she can raise the Stranger from the dead.
(The jailer sings his aria of how Heliane was able to cure his son)
The beauty and serenity of Heliane enchants the crowd momentarily. And as she tries to raise the dead Stranger, the musical material gathers pace expands its multi-directional effects while continuing to raise harmonic tensions:
(another great pre-cinematic moment in opera – as Heliane walks out among the crowd to raise the dead Stranger)
Heliane demands that in God’s name the dead Stranger rise up from the dead. When he doesn’t she breaks down and admits that she loved him, and here Müller makes a significant departure from Kaltneker, as Heliane sings that it wasn’t just in her mind that she loved the Stranger, she “drank sweetness from his mouth” and “reprieved but guilty” they had indeed “sunk down together”. The crowd brays for blood and start to drag her towards the pyre. The King intervenes and promises to pardon her if only she would love him. She refuses and he hands her over to the crowd to do with whatever they wish. The Messenger sings in triumph only to be silenced by the Stranger rising up from his bier. Angels join the crowd in wonderment.
(the final duet of the opera)
The end of the opera, lasting some seventeen minutes is a continuous build-up that simply cannot be encapsulated. She expresses unworthiness but is redeemed just as the King runs her through with his spear much to the horror of crowd. As she dies, the two ascend into heaven singing of finding true love in death. The music rebounds from one upward modulation to the next, often unbearable in its intensity. The end of the opera is presented here in its entirety as to break it would interrupt a musical narrative that is beyond anything Korngold managed in the more compressed context of film.
Das Wunder der Heliane arrived at a time of mass sobriety within the German public. Its mystical escapism was seen by many as delusional, stupefying listeners rather than enlightening them. The famous contrast between Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf! is telling of the age. It was a contemporary opera premiered only weeks after Heliane in Vienna and resulting in a Kulturkampf that occupied not just Vienna, but the entire German-speaking music world and pinnacling in Austrian Tobacco producing two brands of cigarettes: a perfumed variety called Heliane and another made with unfiltered black tobacco named Jonny. In Jonny, the soprano, Anita, is nonchalantly unfaithful to her lover and falls into bed with a concert violinist for a one-night-stand while the jazz musician Jonny steals his instrument. It was a symbolic moment that was meant to prove that Europe’s old culture was to be flattened by the culture of the New World, just as the concert violinist is flattened in the final scene of the opera by a locomotive.
The realism and carefree sexual behaviour of Jonny contrasted tellingly with the deeply Freudian complexities of Heliane’s presumed un-fulfilled consummation. If Korngold had never gone to Hollywood, one would not view Heliane in the light it’s seen in today. It wasn’t just Hollywood: it was the nature of cinema at the time that tarnished both Korngold and Heliane’s image. Cinema in the 1930s and ‘40s, whether in Hollywood, Berlin or London was largely unchallenging, sentimental and pandered to the wholly emotional responses of viewers. Korngold took his talents and distilled them to the short-sharp moments film accommodated for music. Allowed to stand on its own, without the credits of sixteen Hollywood films, Heliane overwhelms on its own merits, and comes from the decade before Korngold’s departure into film music.
An up-date to this posting: I attended the premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin on March 18th, 2018. It presented a cast which made light work of the vocal difficulties, ending the opera with sufficient resources to start over again from the top. They were not only vocally dazzling but visually dazzling as well. Having a dramatic soprano prepared to disrobe fully for the end of the first act – and looking as enchanting as the character’s role suggests – the drama was lifted from metaphor representing the enigma and sanctity of the sexual act to red-blooded theatrical dramaThe Herrscher/Ruler was sung by an equally young baritone, vocally and visually appealing making Heliane’s reluctance to intimacy with her husband, while undressing in front of Stranger, an altogether intriguing aspect of the narrative and placing the “Did-she? Didn’t-she?” question more firmly in the centre of the plotline. Perhaps it took away the mystery, but it was replaced by genuine theatrical tension. In the Decca recording, which I produced, the Herrscher/Ruler was sung as an aging psychopath – in the versions I heard in concert in Vienna and saw in Berlin, the Herrscher/Ruler is young, virile and offered a good deal of genuine music to sing rather than snarl through. He became a figure of sympathy and it changed the dynamic of relationships and threw the storyline into a different place. In an age shaped by television and cinema, it’s difficult to swallow Das Wunder der Heliane as a mystery metaphor, attempting to break down Vienna’s Freudian sexual repression. Instead, the Deutsche Oper offered a work of theatre spectacularly sung and acted and as engaging as anything Netflix could create. Wait for the DVD – and if you can’t wait, buy a ticket to Berlin.