The audience currently reaches Opera Vlaanderen Antwerpen through a desolate cityscape of demolition, pedestrian diversions and building work. At its local Antwerp première, David Bösch’s new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Das Wunder der Helianefirst seen in Ghent last month, makes Vlaanderen the only house ever to have mounted it twice, the previous one being in 1970. Dealing with resurrection from desolation, it is praiseworthy that this enterprising company has joined in the renaissance of this opera, neglected for over 50 years after productions in Vienna and German houses in the 1927-1928 season.

At its Hamburg première, Heliane enjoyed a huge success fostered by its sensational plot and the publicity generated by the composer’s music critic father, Julius. Die tote Stadt, Korngold’s earlier opera, had been a runaway success, and Julius promoted his son as a champion against Modernism and aligned himself with conservative forces. A reaction set in and the Berlin première was met with hostility from the press and the novelty-seeking public. The inordinate demands of mounting Das Wunder Der Heliane, and the rise of Nazism, led to hostility towards the Jewish composer and the work soon disappeared.

Korngold based his opera on an obscure mystery play of love and resurrection, and Hans Müller’s libretto is highly charged with religio-erotic symbolism. On the occasion of a 2007 concert performance one London critic memorably labelled the plot “unmitigated codswallop”. The basic narrative is relatively simple. Set in an unspecified period an unnamed Ruler, in a loveless, unconsummated marriage with Heliane, exerts a grim, despotic power. A young messianic Stranger preaches joy and love, for which he is imprisoned. Heliane is drawn to him, and reveals herself naked. The Ruler takes understandable exception, and both are put on trial for their lives. The Stranger kills himself in a death pact, while Heliane protests she is chaste. Her husband puts her to the test that, if she is innocent, she should miraculously resurrect her dead supposed lover. Heliane refuses to commit such blasphemy, admits her love, but is being bound to the stake rather than save her life by giving herself to The Ruler. The heavens are revealed, the music of the spheres resounds as angelic voices sing out. The Stranger rises from his bier, and Heliane rushes into his arms. In a rage The Ruler stabs her, but both lovers are united in disembodied bliss.

The fervid excess of the plot is overlaid by the overwhelming opulence of the score with its echoes of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. Batteries of percussion and brass, triple woodwind, five keyboard instruments, strings playing in multiple parts, off-stage bands, a large chorus and a heavenly chorus of children form the richly textured sound world. The ever shifting and unresolved chromatic harmonies reaching into atonality, are only tempered by the dissonant, fractured rhythms of The Ruler and The Messenger, his Kundry-like erstwhile mistress. 

Given the headiness of the highly wrought writing, director Bösch and designer Christof Hetzer counter this by setting it in a bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland, strewn with ashes and dead vegetation. Costumes are grungy singlets, bovver boots, scabs and distressed hair rather than the luxurious accoutrements specified in the text. Bösch hones in on the tortuous relationship between Heliane, The Stranger and The Ruler with a physical, even sweaty, unremitting immediacy. Each play of repulsion and attraction is matched by gesture and expression. There is no glamour or titillation in Heliane’s stripping, but shock as she tremulously peels off to a simple shift.

As Heliane, Ausrine Stundyte sang a transcendent performance surmounting the vocal demands mesmerisingly. Every inflection is clear in the sinews of her being. In the work’s one truly hit number, “Ich ging zu ihm” she rose to a climactic  top A through the ascending steps of the long melody. As The Stranger, grizzled heldentenor Ian Storey, not exactly a joyous youth, sustained the strenuous writing exultantly and tenderly. Tómas Tómasson grimaced and snarled his way through the brutal part of The Ruler with his incisive bass-baritone. Natascha Petrinsky made much of the seething Messenger. Two members of the Young Ensemble, Denzil Delaere as the Judge and promising baritone Markus Suihkonen, impressed. The chorus were forceful and disciplined in their anarchic dance at the start of Act 3 and the Children’s Choir were seraphic. Conducting these huge forces Alexander Joel welded the sometimes diffuse score into a dramatic structure. The somewhat cramped acoustic did not allow the orchestra fully to glow, but all sections played with skill.

In the finale Bösch avoided the heavenly kitsch, inherent in the score. A dividing veil separated Heliane at the front of the stage as she cradled The Stranger in her lap as the Resurrection theme which opens and closes the opera faded away movingly.