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The Miracle of Heliane is Really a Miracle

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Thu Aug 1st, 2019

Center, Soprano Ausrine Stundyte; Right, Bass-baritone Alfred Walker; Left, Tenor Daniel Brenna; Further left,  Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee

Bard College’s American Premiere of The Miracle of Heliane (1927) offers a stunning re-creation of a once-famous Viennese opera that has been traditionally considered passé, yet under the stage direction of Christian Räth, conductor Leon Botstein with the American Symphony Orchestra accompanied by sets and costume design by Esther Bialas, this production appears as if it were a new opera written just yesterday. Perhaps the primary reason for this perception is not mere chance: our moment in history resembles the early days of Hitler’s ascendency.

Like Beethoven’s Fidelio (1814), prison remains a central focus in the opera, yet it is all society that is a prison. Korngold alludes to Mozart’s The Magic Flute early in the first of three acts to conjure the malevolent Queen of the Night. Korngold’s sumptuous decorative density runs thick with musical allusions as the libretto mocks Arthurian legend. The score supplies a forest of trees, sudden lakes, scenic vistas. While Korngold’s music swims in late, lush Romantic sentiment, Hans Muller-Einigen’s libretto is adorned by dense, lyrical allusions to literature and religion. At its core the libretto offers a lyrical, modern version of the Tristan and Isolde epic by Gottfried von Strassburg within a Judeo-Christian framework that it seeks to supersede.  

Muller-Einigen employs Christian myth to affirm equality of Jews in Christian society: that both Christianity and Judaism are sister monotheistic religions of love that transcend superficial differences. The Stranger represents both Jew and true Christian. Korngold also affirms the role of sexual attraction in love as a pillar of civilized society. Love for another person sits at the heart of both religions; love is the vehicle that abolishes irrational prejudice. This vision remains the antithesis of autocracy. Myth is a language of hope that combats intolerance and that is most likely why Hitler summarily shuttered the production: not because of the eight-minute nude scene, which in this production is modestly handled for popular audiences.

While Muller-Einigen’s use of religious myth runs counter to the dominant trend of secular humanism, which arose as a reaction to Christianity’s embrace (on both sides) of World War I, its message of tolerance projects great appeal beyond the intense alienation in Kafka and Joyce; Muller-Einigen’s use of popular myth shares much of the similar questioning intention as the Viennese rationalist Robert Musil, who argued for broad questioning irony. Muller-Einigen’s innovative myth raises many questions and does not confirm the Christian cliché of Resurrection (which, if happened, was only a temporary resuscitation that was announced to the Sanhedrin on the third day, as in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus).

Mel Brooks’ popular film production of Young Frankenstein (1974) satirized humorously the theme of Christian resurrection; Muller-Einigen’s humanistic libretto invites us to explore the myth as metaphor, even as he subverts the myth with satiric double Resurrection as an affirmative cathartic reversal. Yet the opera is not merely an exercise in romantic myth: frightening realism occurs in the depiction of brutal dictatorial tyranny (which corrupts the whole of society) where in background the various legends concerning Pontius Pilate, enemy of Orthodox Jews and Christian Jewish reformers, are evoked; the Jewish Stranger is the hero for both Judaism and Christianity, which is, in effect, as broad a sociological humanism as one finds in Musil and Thomas Mann. (Muller-Einigen’s legendary historical thread was continued by the Christian feminist mystic Gertrud von Le Fort in her novella The Wife of Pilate (1955), and more importantly by Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43), as well as the historical plays and novels of Franz Werfel.)

That the protagonist halo is for a time passed to Heliane appears as forceful feminist allegory ahead of its era. And it is a woman who embraces the religion of personal Romantic love who destroys the dictator! The brilliant irony and absurd humor of the libretto supports an allegory of secular love elevated to a new Romantic religion of individual freedom while it courts oblique blasphemies that satirize religious orthodoxy.

Korngold’s music washed over the audience inducing sensual surrender as it vividly supported the emotional mood of the drama. Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte as Heliane was stunning as her voice filled every cranny of Sosnoff Theater. Likewise, bass-baritone Alfred Walker as The Ruler struck fear into the fabric of every seat while he appeared to comprehend autocracy as the reasonable norm that was driving him insane. Tenor Daniel Brenna as The Stranger radiated innocence, dignity, and love with self-confidence. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee received an especially enthusiastic applause from the audience which demanded several bows of the cast and conductor Leon Botstein whose work was immaculate. James Bagwell’s direction of the chorus was impressive, especially in the third act. Brechtian-inspired stagecraft was emotionally supportive while dance direction by Catherine Galasso melded into the musical score. 

While The Miracle of Heliane is of great historical interest as the last great Romantic opera; its revival offers electric contemporary resonances about dictatorial anger and narcissism. Since this is a most impressive production—certainly the best opera production Bard has ever mounted—it should have legs and enjoy a revival in opera halls throughout the country:  if not only for its gorgeous music, but its uncanny relevancy to our current political predicament. The singers, musicians, sets and staff are there. When will it be broadcast to theaters as a live performance?

The New York Times acclaimed this production as worth traveling to by bus from Manhattan. If a masterpiece sits in your backyard, why not see and hear it? The last performance is August 4th. This opera is the kick-off introduction to help people understand how Korngold became a master film music composer. This year’s Summerscape, devoted to Korngold, runs though August 18th at Bard College.