Das Wunder der Heliane, LPO/Jurowski - Royal Festival Hall, 21 November 2007
It's been a while since I walked out of a concert at the interval, but I was sorely tempted on this occasion. Without much to compare a performance of this rarely-aired opera to, I was expecting to find the same butterscotch lushness and overblown eroticism as the Decca recording achieves, but Vladimir Jurowski chickened out and watered the first act down into something as grey and saggy as John Prescott's underpants. Heliane (and Korngold generally) has often been charged with over-the-topness, but this mousy excuse for a first act barely got off the ground.
And that wasn't even the worst bit. The soloists, placed on the choir platform behind the souped-up orchestra, were all but inaudible. Only the mighty Willard White (as the Porter) really did credit to his role, and I'd wager he found blasting through Korngold's cruelly massive orchestrations a tougher task to tackle than even Wotan at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
It could have done with more accomplished Wagnerians all round. Patricia Racette at least had the lyrical grace for Heliane, if not the volume. But she lacked the radiance Renee Fleming brought to her recent Proms performance of the second act aria Ich ging zu ihm, a performance still fresh in my memory.
Tenor Michael Hendrick simply wasn't up to the part of the Stranger, with neither the belting volume nor the challenging high notes it requires. And Andreas Schmidt (the Ruler) had a very poor night of it, intonation and control awry, and a strange habit of half covering his mouth with his hand.
I returned warily to my seat after the first interval and was immediately rewarded as Jurowski poked some much-needed life in the LPO for the second act prelude. By the time we got to the third act interlude, the most musically satisfying episode of the whole night, they were positively smoking, and without sacrificing any polish for power. Reckless abandon and technical difficulty are a tough combination to finesse, and maybe that's why we had to wait so long for it, but that's what this work needs from start to finish.
The third act also unleashed the EuropaChorAkademie, who'd been little but a patient audience for the first two hours. They finally provided some vocal competition for the orchestra, and captured better than anyone else had the unashamed heart on sleeve romanticism of the work as their voices surged upwards. The soloists, curiously, also improved vastly at this point -- the more considerate orchestration may have helped. Hearing Andrew Kennedy (who is not naturally small of voice) virtually shouting his few lines to fire them over the orchestra brought home what hard work it must have been for all of the singers. If nothing else, this evening pointed up some of the pitfalls a full staging might run into.
The performance was recorded, for what purpose I'm not sure, but unless they can wizard up an engineering miracle, I'll be happy to stick with the last act alone.