DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE in BRNO
Better than Bayreuth (NOT a review)
The dignitaries were out in force at the premiÃ¨re on 27/9 in the Janacek Theatre in Brno, Hollywood-style, complete with red carpet and photographers. They were individually introduced by name, with spotlights and applause, in the auditorium immediately before the opera started. Any chance to quietly anticipate the most glorious opening bars of any opera had already been dashed by the untimely playing of a recording of the introduction (the Allegro at rehearsal number 3) to Katja Kabanova underlying the announcement of the impending Janacek Festival.
The audience was a very Czech affair, with smatterings of English, German and Vlennese (from the dozens of bussed- in matrons looking suspiciously like an "opera club") also to be heard, and the generally well sung German was aided by surtitles in Czech and English, the latter with picturesque grammar and rustic spelling ("adultary"). For the ridiculously low price of â‚¬24 I had about the best seat in the house. The pre-opera bonus was to see Korngold's birthhouse from the foyer of the first balcony which is situated about 300 meters in front of the theatre (and, on closer inspection, appropriately beplaqued).
As I had expected before the curtain opened, Heliane is one of those operas whose scenic realization cannot do justice to the atmosphere created by the composition. The "mysterium" was audible but as far from being visible as possible. It was as if those who conceived this production had read the plot and the text, and had never heard a note of the score, resulting in something as sensual and mystical as the empty desolate square in front of the theatre onto which a huge statue of Janacek stares, waiting for the long-overdue face-lift. Here was an aesthetic which seemed inspired by the now legendary "How to opera Germanly" parody - one example: the Apotheosis of the final scene - shining B major accompanying Heliane and the Fremde as they ascend entwined into Heaven, with the "curtain closing on light and beauty", was interpreted as the Herrscher's suicide (Heliane and the Fremde had already left the stage in opposite directions after their final duet in front of the inevitable backdrop of planet Earth), the Botin rejoicing about his death, and the chorus standing about , again dressed in their workers uniforms after only minutes earlier (in their "Freedom" chorus) having liberated themselves by tearing off said uniforms to expose their colored T-shirts. The chorus singing was excellent.
Rule 9 of "Opera Germanly" ("Rolling on the floor a mustâ€¦)" was also closely adhered to. Already when Heliane exposed her feet to the Fremde (who was fashionably dressed for his captivity in the inevitable 3-piece suit), they were both flailing on said floor - nothing regal about this Queen.
In any case, the matter of key/color symbolism was ignored. While it might not be always necessary to dig out Scriabin's color-organ , a general acknowledgment of the reasons that Korngold chose such keys as F-sharp major for the end of the second act (not to mention "Doch schÃ¶n war der Knabe"), and B major for the end of the third, coloring such moments of ecstasy, divine inspiration, transfiguration and the like, is something on an opera stage that I wait for in vain. Even such obvious musical gestures as the "ghostly march tempo" surrounding the scenes with the Schwertrichter and the six judges fell flat with them all entering in wheelchairs.
While none of us really expected Heliane to be naked in the first act (although I've seen a few Salomes give us our money's worth after the seventh veil), the production could only come up with a nightie. The Fremde's suicide with the fruit-knife was no more embarrassing than the most Scarpia murders with the same deadly implement.
The one interval was after the first act, the Zwischenspiel before the third act received a very enthusiastic applause, and the whole evening lasted 3 and a quarter hours, which flew by. The first spinal chill (after the opening chorus) was generated by the first of Heliane's climactic high notes, which, after listening to the marked/faked top four notes of the Fremde (in which fashion he continued throughout the opera, becoming somewhat of a running gag), restored some faith in the thrill of the vocal extremity (and she nailed every one). The Fremde might have been better advised to do some more "down the octave" singing, of course at the detriment to the score, but to save some face. The Botin, on at least on one occasion, even sang "up the octave" (â€¦"und er erwachte").
A few personal revelations: the PfÃ¶rtner narration ("Ich hab sie doch gesehn- ich kenn sie gut") in the third act is eminently extractable as a concert- or audition-aria.
And, the opening 4-note motif (with which the trumpets also close the opera) is too similar to the opening of Lyonel's aria "Ach! so fromm" (Martha/Flotow) for comfort. ( I apologize if this has already been remarked on and escaped my attention.)
Rather like the Fliegende HollÃ¤nder waiting for his salvation, Heliane only has the very occasional chance to re-enter the repertoire, so that every new production is a fight for her further existence. If before this production from Kaiserslautern, the last staging was in Bielefeld in 1988 (which was just before I discovered that theatre for the interesting repertoire that it was presenting - I remember seeing Krenek's Sprung Ã¼ber den Schatten, Delius' Fennimore and Gerda, Wellesz's Die Bakchantinnen, Schreker's Der Singende Teufel, Bernstein's A Quiet Place), we can only despair how long it will be before we see her again. Instead we, in Berlin anyway, make the pilgrimage to huge lavish productions of Nono's Al gran soleâ€¦ and Lachenmann's MÃ¤dchen mit den SchwefelhÃ¶lzern, while one of the most ravishing operas in the repertoire can only be enjoyed at home on the stereo (although the view of the score on my lap is preferable to what the Kaiserslautern aesthetic subjected me to).
All in all, well worth the trip, and I can now say that I've seen all of Korngold's five operas.
As a postscript, it must be mentioned that the Korngold Centre in Brno (as described on this website) does simply not exist. A very helpful English teacher called Simon who works in the same complex of buildings as the centre is said to be, made Czech-language calls on my behalf, and escorted me to various museums and archival institutions in the fruitless search for what is advertised as the Major Artistic Project for the Czech Republic and the World. I stand to be corrected.
HELIANE in Brno
Opera and concert perfomances
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