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

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) has enjoyed a recent period of rediscovery with performances of the work in Brno, Gent, and Freiburg. Last year a production by Deutsche Oper Berlin was awarded “Rediscovery of the year” by Opernwelt magazine. The opera will receive its US premiere this month at the Bard Music Festival as part of the festival’s theme, “Korngold and his world”. The performance will take place on 26 July, performed by the American Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leon Botstein; the director will be Christian Räth.

While the first performance of Das Wunder der Heliane in 1927 was met with praise, the opera failed to mirror the success of Korngold’s first opera, Die tote Stadt, and the work ultimately faded into obscurity. The mixed reception of the opera is in part paralleled by stylistic preferences of the period which favoured naturalistic subjects and characters over the stylized holy figure of Heliane and the miraculous resurrection of a condemned stranger.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane – late romantic homage to love

The real “Miracle of Heliane” is its music. It floods the libretto, waves through the acts, rocks the scenes and the clutter of the dramaturgy. It pours melodies into the figures that overflow into the singing. – Critic Elsa Bienenfeld after the Viennese premiere in 1927

The orchestration of Korngold’s opera incorporates organ, guitar, and fanfare trumpets, which have a symbolic relationship to the subject-matter and foreshadow the composer’s later film music. Korngold’s orchestration responds dramatically to the characters and atmosphere of every scene. The work explores stark contrasts, alternating between hard, rugged and dramatic with passages of extreme warmth. Harmonically, the work exists on the borders of tonality drawing connections between distant tonal centers for dramatic effect.

Das Wunder der Heliane will be performed five times at the Bard Music Festival on 26, 28, 31 July, 2 and 4 August. The festival will also feature a number of Korngold’s other works: in addition to the composer’s film music, there will be performances of Die tote Stadt and concert works including Symphonie in Fis, Cello Concerto in C, and Klavierkonzert in Cis.



Photo: World Premiere at the Hamburgische Staatsoper in 1927