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24.5.16

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane & Sock Monkeys

This post, originally published on WETA’s blog on September 15th, 2007, has been resuscitated to go along with upcoming Korngold-posts on ionarts and Forbes.com that honor the composer’s 119th birthday.

available at Amazon
Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane,
Berlin RSO / J.Mauceri / Soloists
Decca 829402

“Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s three act opera Das Wunder der Heliane is arguably the composer’s greatest work.” This is the opening line of Brendan G. Carroll’s extensive and helpful liner notes to the only recording of this opera – just re-released on Decca/Philips’ budget “Classic Opera” series. (A series distinguished by the very laudable inclusion of such texts and the libretti!) The German translation of the text goes even further and declares it “without a doubt the composer’s greatest work”.

That’s saying quite a bit about a work that has never been much more than a side note in the history of German 20th century opera and one that – apart from the immediate aftermath of its hailed 1927 premiere – could probably be considered a failure.

And yet, hearing the work one is bound to agree with the Korngold Society President, his eager translator, and Korngold himself, too, who thought Heliane his finest work. Never before and never thereafter has the Zemlinsky-student Korngold (1897 – 1957) achieved the profundity he reaches in his fourth (of five) opera. There are many touches that remind of Richard Strauss’ Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), and Die ägyptische Helena (1928).

The Wunderkind years produced marvelous (if slight) chamber and orchestral pieces which had him hailed as the next great composer, a titan on par with Mozart or Beethoven. Of course it didn’t quite turn out like that – and he ended up writing film music for Hollywood. Much regarded then and now famous-again scores such as “Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. Lovely stuff but, well… still film music when all is said, told, and listened to.

His well known, if not often performed, opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) is full of loveliness, of course, but not so much a better work than Heliane as it is an ‘easier’ one. The former has the catchier tunes, the greater hits (“Mariettas’ Lied” – the duet cum Soprano aria – most notably), and a longer successful run in opera houses around the world. But Heliane, more taxing and demanding with its polytonal harmony and more ambitious than sweet, strikes as a much more satisfying and deeper work.

When it came out, however, it was immediately embroiled in the culture war of the time in which young Korngold was pitched (not the least by his father, a prominent Viennese music critic) against more modern composers. And compared to Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová (1922), Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1924), Berg’sWozzek (1925), Hindemith’s Cardillac (1926), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927), and especially Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), Korngold’s opera does seem hopelessly (now: charmingly) outdated. Even if it is none the less wonderful for it, it is harmonically less daring even (or elegantly elusive) than Franz Schreker’s sublime Die Gezeichneten (available on DVD in a tremendous and disturbing production from Salzburg) or Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande – notably operas from 1902 and 1911, respectively. More French, but also similar, is the 1907 opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas (more of which in another post). The similarity with the latter is not too surprising: Korngold, coy or blunt, said he’d copied from no other opera as much as Dukas’.

Das Wunder der Heliane is not only a victim of the musico-political (and then political – as it was considered Entartete Kunst and banned under the Nazis) fights of its day. It is also hampered by a modest libretto and odd story. Not speaking German is no disadvantage to the enjoyment of this opera! Heliane offers a rich score, thick with eroticism, busy and shrill at times, luscious and elegant elsewhere… and three hours of that.


Why Sock Monkeys?


When this post was originally written (for WETA 90.9), it served as a tie in with a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming, in which she was going to sing the “Ich geh’ zu Ihm” aria from the above work, along with other rarities such as an aria from Korngold’s last, even less known opera, Die Kathrin:

…Add to that Mozart, Suppé, Waltz-Strauss, and music from Strauss’ second (justly unknown) opera, Die Feuersnot (“Fire Famine”).

It’s a curiously interesting program – looking a little like a hodgepodge of music, but an attractive one. The center of gravity of the concert meanwhile is Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Soloist – I’m not making this up – “Peng Peng”. China’s latest-latest, 14-year old ivory smashing prodigy. Type “Peng Peng” into Google and you’ll find he’s already replaced “Peng Peng Bears & Sock Monkeys©” from the top position. (I’m not making that up, either.) I don’t know if you feel like you can’t miss our-all-favorite Renée (ever charming in concert, if you’ve seen her in either of the last two seasons) or Peng Peng Gong. But you definitely shouldn’t miss Korngold.







A small survey of Korngold recordings can be found here: The Sounds of Korngold.
An essay on Korngold and his father can be found here on Forbes.com on May 29th

Use of Sock Monkey picture kindly tolerated by Peng Peng, the Sock Monkey artist lady.

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