I always look forward to Nederlandse Reisopera’s productions. They are innovative and not afraid to take risks and raise eyebrows. They have occasionally failed but their new show, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), is a hugely ambitious and original project which, by and large, is ein Wunder in its own right.
The opera, although acclaimed after its première in Hamburg in 1927 and its popularity in the following few years, was then largely forgotten until its revival and subsequent performances in the past twenty years. Billed as being about “the redemptive power of love over injustice and adversity” Heliane is a lot more than that. Very much of its time – the strange interwar years, a mixture of decadence, hope and despair – the opera unknowingly gives a glimpse into the Germany of the following two decades.
Set in an authoritarian state where joy and laughter are forbidden, a young stranger arrives in town advocating both and is promptly locked up and sentenced to death by the cruel king. The opera opens with him in the condemned cell. The queen, Heliane, takes pity on him and shows herself to him naked by way of consolation. It is the subsequent events that form the crux of the story.
This nakedness is, if you like, the raison d’être of the whole piece so I think it was a bit cowardly of the production not to show it. It could have been done discretely, unsensationally in the shadows but they copped out and the most we got was bit of bare shoulder. While I’m at it I’ll mention my only other gripe about the show. On stage virtually the whole time was a strange, all-in-grey female dancer. I wasn’t sure what she represented or if she added anything to the proceedings but there were times when her presence was very distracting. But apart from those two things it was hard to fault this production.
Visually the whole production was stunning and this was particularly effective in the second act which takes place in the courtroom where Heliane is being tried for adultery by six lawyers and a blind judge who turns out to be her father.
Although thought of as a “modern” composer, Korngold’s third act of Heliane is a strange mixture. It starts off with quite a long, very romantic prelude which, in this case, is performed as a solo ballet by the ubiquitous grey clad lone female dancer of Jakob Peters-Messer’s production. It is followed by some fairly aggressive choral work and another romantic, lyrical aria by the prison guard. But it is the chorus to which the third acts belongs. The Consensus Vocalis portrayed the baying crowd eager for blood, many of them carry strip lights which are then placed around a central rostrum to create a fire.
The singing and the music were outstanding, with Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer giving a virtuoso performance with her Ich ging zu ihm being one of the high-spots of the evening. I also liked Hilman Unger as The Stranger and Darren Jeffery as the dastardly ruler. The new orchestral arrangements by Fergus McAlpine were beautifully performed by the Noord Nederlands Orkest under the baton of Jac van Steen.
As I said before, visually the production was exceptionally good, one of the best I have seen in a long time. Basically, the set was a huge triangular room with plain white walls and a reflective ceiling. But onto those walls were projected images which at times seemed almost to overpower the singers. Designed and lit by Guido Petzold I think it is the visuals I will remember from this production.
Nederlandse Reisopera’s Das Wunder der Heliane is an unequivocal success and one which will long linger in the memory for some time to come. Michael Hasted 7th November 2023