The Awakening: Das Wunder der Heliane from the Bard Summerscape

Korngold – Das Wunder der Heliane

Heliane – Aušrinė Stundytė
Der Herrscher – Alfred Walker
Der Fremde – Daniel Brenna
Die Botin – Jennifer Feinstein
Der Pförtner – Nicholas Brownlee
Der blinde Schwertrichter – David Cangelosi
Der junge Mann – Joseph Demarest
Sechs Richter – Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Michael J Hawk, Derek Taylor, Kevin Thompson, Richard Troxell

Bard Festival Chorale, American Symphony Orchestra / Leon Botstein.
Stage director – Christian Räth.  Video director – Bruce Bryant.

Sosnoff Theater, The Fisher Center at Bard, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, USA.  July 2019.  Streamed via the American Symphony Orchestra’s website.

Korngold’s fourth opera Das Wunder der Heliane is undergoing a mini-renaissance currently.  Following successful productions in Flanders and at the Deutsche Oper, the ever-enterprising Bard Summerscape programmed the work as part of its 2019 edition.  It was something of a coup for them to enlist the great singing-actor Aušrinė Stundytė for a rare US appearance, in a role that she had received particular acclaim for during the run in Flanders.  The President of Bard College, the location of the festival, Leon Botstein, led his American Symphony Orchestra and a mainly US cast.  The staging was entrusted to Hamburg, Germany-based director, Christian Räth.

Heliane contains some of that gloriously soupy music familiar to lovers of Korngold.  The story of the sexual awakening of the wife of a totalitarian ruler, her sexuality roused by a mysterious stranger, the demands on the three principals are considerable.  There’s also some rousing choral writing in Act 3.  Räth sets the work in a relatively simple set, a place prison officers walk in formation and the Ruler, judges and their entourage dress in costumes featuring a logo that appears constantly around the set.  The costumes (Esther Bialas, who also designed the sets) seem quite futuristic for the ruler’s entourage, while the people appear to be split between the men dressed as Scandinavian fishermen and the ladies as Russian babushkas, thereby reinforcing the element of timelessness.  This futuristic world was also apparent in the opening scene with the Stranger brought in on a cart, in an orange jumpsuit, and his head covered with a cloth bag.  The presence of a corps of dancers add visual interest, whether in their dancing with portraits in Act 2, or dancing with Heliane at the opening of Act 3, with full credit to Stundytė for dispatching the complex choreography with the dancers.

Photo: © Stephanie Berger

The strength of Räth’s staging is that he gives a visually striking framework to the action, precisely creating a visual world that is suitably mysterious.  It is thanks to Stundytė’s histrionic strengths that much of it works – her willingness to reveal herself physically as well as dramatically inspires admiration.   At the same time, some of the choreographed hand movements for the chorus seemingly add little.  There’s also a fair amount of singing at the front with arms aloft from some of the characters.  That said, it works and any reservations are minimal.

Stundytė interprets Heliane as a woman possessed.  There is something in her stage presence that renders her character an otherworldly air, the suggestions of trauma in her refusal to look either the Ruler or the Stranger in the eye, the perceptible awakening that came through, both in her ecstatic top and in her physical revelation.  Vocally she is fearless, singing her big Act 2 scene, ‘Ich ging zu Ihm’ with long-lined generosity.  Yes, there were moments when there were a few notes in the higher reaches not quite hit à point, but her willingness to give everything to us, her complete living of the role through text and movement, inspire admiration.  Especially so in some beautifully floated phrases and in her ecstatic pealing in the latter stages of Act 3.

Photo: © Stephanie Berger

The Stranger was sung by Daniel Brenna, familiar from the 2018 San Francisco Ring.  The role is a massive sing, firing on all cylinders from the start and I must admit that I did fear Brenna wouldn’t last the course.  There was a tendency to approach notes from below, the top sounded stressed and the heavy lifting to get up there became more and more audible as the evening progressed, with a legato that sounded especially lumpy.  That said, he deserves our admiration for giving it a good stab and not holding back, even if it was heavy going to listen to.

Alfred Walker sang the role of the Ruler.  Walker is one of those singers whose name I’ve heard but never had the chance to see or hear live.  I must admit that based on this, I would very much like to hear him in the big Wagner and Strauss roles.  His bass-baritone is admirably firm with a rock-solid top, soaring seemingly without limits.  His German is, as yet, rather Anglophone in flavour but the evenness of emission is most impressive.

In the remainder of the cast, David Cangelosi brought a somewhat leathery tenor, with verbal acuity to the role of the Blind Judge.  Jennifer Feinstein sang the Messanger with an orange-toned mezzo.  I was also struck by Nicholas Brownlee as the Porter, the owner of a handsome and firm bass-baritone.  Again, his German needs work, but I can see him becoming a very useful artist.  The house chorus, as recorded, sounded somewhat on the small side here, with the sopranos vibrating generously, although the tuning was admirably secure.

Photo: © Stephanie Berger

The American Symphony played efficiently for Botstein.  His tempi did seem somewhat languid, never really moving beyond andante, with the sense more of a safe pair of hands guiding the piece tentatively, rather that a driving force pushing the action to its inevitable (if rather improbable) conclusion.  He did obtain some quite ravishingly delicate playing for the opening scene of Act 3.  The orchestral sound, as recorded, also seemed a bit light on the strings, but the brass came through with blazing force.

That we were able to see this performance is undoubtedly reason to be grateful, particularly as it captures Stundytė’s staggering account of the title role and Walker’s stentorian account of the Ruler.  Räth’s staging is logical and effective and provides an engaging framework for the action.  While some of the individual performances were a bit rough and ready, this performance does manage to capture the essence of the work and makes for an intriguing introduction to the festival.

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