The climax of the London Philharmonic's Korngold festival was this performance, the UK premiere, of his grandest, most extravagant and, one might say, flawed work: das Wunder der Heliane. At some three hours long, it's scored for vast orchestra, large chorus and soloists; the two main roles, those of the stranger and Heliane are among the most taxing in the repertoire. And despite the hard work of Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, this performance fell well short of convincing me of the work's greatness.
It didn't help that the event had the feeling that it had been rather thrown together at the last minute. The surtitles were projected onto a flimsy screen above the right hand side of the stage and, most fatally, the decision had been taken to place the singers behind the orchestra. Maybe, given the fact that the orchestra took up the whole stage, there was no choice, but it was far from ideal for the singers to be confined to seats where the organ console usually is, stuck between the men and women of the chorus – the excellent EuropaChorAkademie. This meant that they were fighting a losing battle to try and project over the orchestra without getting pulled into the swirling torrents of Korngold's orchestration.
There was no scope for them trying to create any sense of drama, nor did many of them even attempt to. As the excellent Patricia Racette (Heliane) ecstatically proclaimed her love for Michael Hendrick's stranger, for example, the latter sat in his seat next to her, calmly sipping water from a bottle. Hendrick was probably the worst affected by the logistical decisions, too. His voice has nothing in the way of a cutting, steely edge and failed to project; only once in the third act, when Korngold produced some more delicate textures to support him, did we hear what he was capable of.
For those coming to this concert hoping to be blown away by a masterpiece there was inevitable disappointment. And I have to say Jessica Duchan's self-serving programme note (surely there are other sources she can quote from than her own biography of the composer – helpfully cited twice with price and publisher's web address) did little to help the work's case. She makes comparisons with Wagner which only serve to highlight the weaknesses and quotes, without a single word of qualification, 'a well-known German musicologist' who makes a facile claim that it is 'the most important operatic score of the twentieth century'.
The opera uses a wishy-washy symbolist/expressionist libretto which has a fundamental lack of drama. Like Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, the characters are mainly archetypes; Heliane is the only one with a name. Duchan writes that 'Korngold employs a panapoly of musical techniques to achieve his ends, with an intensity that scarcely lets up for a moment.' That, for me, is the problem. Theodor Adorno compares Wagner's Götterdämmerung to the protagonist in an Uhland poem (a knight who fails to swim across a lake because of his armour) saying that Götterdämerung sinks due to the whole array of leitmotivic armour it has to drag with it from the other operas in the Ring cycle. Das Wunder der Heliane is so weighed down by its composer's unrelenting desire to create a world of torrid, perfumed mystery and erotic-Christian sensuality that it can barely walk, let alone swim.
There is some fine music and the orchestration is never less than thoroughly expert but, despite – or perhaps because of – the vast forces at his disposal, Korngold fails to create much variety and a lot of the music sounds, frankly, derivative: the Ruler's music reminded me of Klytämnestra's music in Elektra, for example. And although Heliane's big aria, 'Ich ging zu ihm', is properly stirring, its climax ends up being just one of so many climactic moments in the score. The reflective introduction to the third act came as a relief, a chance for us to catch our breath before we launched into the big, cacophonous crowd scene which opens the act.
One might argue that the only way to judge this work would be to see it in a fully staged production, however, I fear that a staging would only serve to emphasise its dramatic shortcomings and it's no more likely to convince in the theatre than it did here. The premieres of the work were no doubt scuppered by the composer's father, the critic Julius Korngold, who launched an anti-modernist campaign thus setting half the musical community against his own son. However, these lavishly staged and casted performances which took place in quick succession in Hamburg, Vienna and Berlin shortly after the work's completion in 1927, seem not even to have impressed Korngold's supporters very much.
At this performance, there was occasionally something a little routine about Jurowski's conducting and a feeling that the priority was to get through the score – enough of an achievement in itself – rather than try and make any sense of it. As already mentioned, Racette as Heliane was probably the most convincing of the soloists. Where her colleagues often failed to be heard above the orchestra, her gleaming soprano soared majestically. As her husband, the ruler, Andreas Schmidt sounded woefully out of his depth, his voice - thin, effortful and with frequent problems in intonation - was unpleasant to listen to. His discomfort was reflected in his strange body language; when singing, his left hand spent most of the time hovering just below his mouth in what seemed like an apologetic gesture. Willard White was solid as the porter and Robert Tear nicely animated as the blind judge. Ursula Hesse von den Steinen made the most of her poorly defined role as the messenger.
We have to applaud the LPO for staging this event and I don't think anyone will have come away without being glad to have heard the work live. It's without doubt a tragedy that Korngold, possibly the most prodigiously gifted composer of all, failed to score a success with this magnum opus and never found the recognition as a 'serious' composer he so desperately craved. However, we mustn't let the composer's story cloud our judgement of this work: it has its moments but it is deeply flawed.
By Hugo Shirley
Read recent concert reviews, including Nikolaj Znaider's performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto with the LPO, here.