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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mad but marvellous, 2 Feb 2014
This review is from: Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane (Audio CD)
I have waited several months, and several complete runs of the opera, before finally committing myself to a review. I believe that Charles Voogd (in an earlier review) is too ready to dismiss the piece but several of his criticisms of the actual performance struck a chord with me.

Firstly, the Opera itself: This is about the most barking-mad operatic construction you are ever likely to hear. It is a fantastic expressionist fairytale filled with archetypes and outrageous exaggerations. However, Korngold himself believed it to be his greatest work and, although a composer's judgement of his own compositions need not be infallible, this was not a view he took without considerable thought. The libretto describes a Fascistic world of rigid totalitarianism. (A totalitarianism that seeks to control feeling as well as action). He then challenges and obliterates this kingdom with the overwhelming power of human love. Not merely erotic love, although this is certainly a powerful force in the Opera, but also the good-hearted, unselfish love for our fellow human beings (epitomised by the character of the Porter).The extraordinary plot is entirely subservient to this aim and the music is created to utterly overwhelm the listener with this message. Even if you believe (as I do) that the whole enterprise is scarcely credible, there is something here that goes beyond any other operatic work that I have ever heard. This was a love-letter to his beloved wife, Luzi, and, if you can permit yourself to suspend disbelief for three hours, the impact of the Opera is astounding; touching areas of the imagination unreachable by a more conventional operatic story.
It's very much a product of it's time, full of the super-heated Freudianism of Psychoanalysis. Alongside all of this, the rise of National Socialism and the horrors-to-come are prefigured in the libretto to a disturbing degree.

What of the performance and recording? John Mauceri has achieved wonders in all departments. Orchestra and Chorus are fabulous and the recording does full justice to Korngold's unique and original sound-world. However, the demands made on the central trio of singers are probably greater than in any other Opera I know. The problem of finding singers who are both willing and able to rise to the challenge has proved insuperable. All three Principal singers have thoroughly prepared themselves and throw themselves into the work with great courage but this, in itself, is not necessarily enough. When I first listened through, I felt properly transported but repeated listening makes the flaws harder to live with. The Stranger has to sing his role with a beauty of tone that is essential if the character is to make a convincing impact. It's an heroic effort but, unfortunately, that effort is sometimes all too apparent from John-David de Haan. The Ruler, as sung by Hartmut Welker, has a huge but unwieldy and rather unpleasant baritone. Welker was in his 60s when he recorded the role and perhaps the years had taken too big a toll on the voice. Perhaps he never had what is necessary? Anna Tomowa-Sintow was still in possession of an extraordinarily beautiful voice that, fifteen years earlier, would probably have been ideal. (I still cherish my recording of her Ariadne with James Levine). Her performance is good enough in the context of the recording and there are many lovely things here. However, on YouTube you can find a recording of Renee Fleming singing Heliane's great Act 2 aria "Ich ging zu ihm" with Gianandrea Noseda, recorded at the Proms in August 2007 (The best clip pairs it with a lovely aria from "Die Kathrin"). The contrast is telling. It's true that Fleming had a mere few minutes to perform, whereas Tomowa-Sintow had the entire role to learn and deliver. Even so, returning to the complete recording I became painfully conscious of Tomowa-Sintow's peculiarly approximate German (Fleming's is immaculate) and a tendency to approach every climactic note from underneath (sometimes, from a long way underneath). The passionate involvement and beauty-of-tone are undeniable - and yet...
["Ich ging zu ihm" is a tremendous masterpiece in it's own right. If you are able to listen to that Fleming clip, it will give you an idea of whether you could live with the whole Opera. Hear it if you can.]

Both Welker and Tomowa-Sintow were in their 60s when they recorded the Opera and perhaps the story would have been very different if this had been made when they were in their prime. I wonder who Decca and Mauceri approached to sing the roles? I would imagine that most high-profile Operatic stars would be unwilling to devote the many months needed to learn such demanding music with no prospect of singing it in the Opera house. This is probably why we have these two major roles taken by singers on the brink of retirement. Cruelly, we also have the young Rene Pape singing the important role of the Porter and showing exactly how it should be done. He really made me sit up. If only he had been cast as the Ruler!

I love this work. It's insane but unmissable. The "Miracle" itself is delivered with music that defies categorisation. Korngold has put himself in an unenviable position. If the music does not live up to the moment, the whole Opera will die on its feet. I can only say that I was awestruck. If you enjoyed "Die Tote Stadt" you'll certainly "get" it. So although I feel that the casting of the central trio just misses the mark, there are many wonderful things here and you should most definitely hear it.
It seems unlikely that we'll ever get an Opera or recording company willing to invest in another attempt but I live in hope. I keep imagining my ideal cast [Could Kaufmann be persuaded to sing the Stranger? Nina Stemme (or Fleming - but is it too late)? Bryn Terfel?] Perhaps, one day, we will get the chance to hear the piece with singers who are fully equipped to deliver the near-impossible. For now, this is the only show in town and easily worth your money.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Korngold's masterpiece, 20 July 2013
This review is from: Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane (Audio CD)
Fabulous recording of 'Heliane' which may well be Korngold's masterpiece. I purchased this on iTunes first but you really need CD quality sound to enjoy this at its full potential. This work reminds of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. However I think Korngold has managed to surpass all these composers. The only opera that comes close is Walton's Troilus and Cressida.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Das Wunder der Heliane, 14 Jan 2014
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This review is from: Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane (Audio CD)
Excellent recording, however having difficulty downloading the libretto. I'm presently trying to sort this out with Decca. I really wish complete opera librettos were still included with boxed sets.
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Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane
Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane by Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Audio CD - 2012)
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