„Das Wunder der Heliane“ – Die Handlung - Deutsche Oper Berlin

From the programme booklet

„Das Wunder der Heliane“ – Synopsis

explained by Christof Loy

Act One

In a land where laughing and loving is forbidden, a nameless stranger awaits his sentence. He had come to the land to spread his message of joy and light among the people. The king himself ordered his arrest and immediate trial. A watchman informs the stranger that on that very night someone will come to tell him the verdict. This person turns out to be the king himself, who tells the stranger that he will be executed the following morning. In godforsaken solitude, the stranger waits for morning to come with dread. Then a woman comes to him to comfort him in the final hours before his death. She reveals that she is the queen, the wife of the tyrannical ruler. The stranger is mesmerised by her angelic appearance. She too cannot resist his tender poetry. Both realise that this feeling blossoming unexpectedly between them cannot last long, since death awaits the stranger in the early morning hours. Without hesitation, Queen Heliane does what the stranger yearns for in the last hours before his execution. She allows him to touch her hair and her bare feet, and finally to look at her naked body, too. When he asks her to surrender herself to him on this night, she refuses. She says she wants to pray for him and herself and disappears into the nearby chapel. In that moment, the king returns again and makes the stranger an unusual offer: he, the ruler, loves Heliane, his wife, but she will not accept his love. He, the stranger, is someone who can make an entire people love him. Therefore, it should be very easy for him to soften cold Heliane, so that he, the ruler and her husband, can then step in and finally conquer Heliane’s body, which up until now she has refused to allow him to do. He has never even seen her naked. Heliane hears her husband’s words from the next room and, horrified, orders him to be silent. Only then does she remember her nakedness. The king immediately accuses her of being unfaithful to him with the stranger and has her arrested. He will put his love on trial that very night.


Act Two

With the help of a female messenger, with whom he once spent a night of lust, only a few hours after his wife’s arrest, the king convenes a court that is prepared to pronounce the country’s usual sentence for adultery: death. The chief judge and associate judges are shocked when they realise that it is the queen herself who is supposed to have committed adultery. Heliane tries to explain to the court that it was not lust that drove her to show herself to the stranger naked. She felt empathy for his fear of death, for his pain and that is why she did what she did. And therefore she claims, she is innocent and pure. Neither the king nor the judges can understand what she says. She also leaves it completely unclear whether she actually had sexual relations with the stranger. The stranger himself, whom the king has let live for now, is then led in to testify. The stranger manages to convince the executioner to allow him to be alone with Heliane for a moment before he is questioned further. The stranger offers Heliane his life. She should kill him in order to appease her husband’s hatred and save her own life. Heliane cannot accept this deal. The stranger then kisses her and kills himself in front of her. The king and the judges rush back into the court after Heliane cries for help. In despair, the king throws himself on the dying stranger. He realises that he will never know the truth about what happened that night between him and his wife. The stranger has barely just fallen down dead, when the messenger informs them that the entire people are rebelling at the palace gates. The people have heard that the man who proclaimed joy and light has been sentenced to death. They want to see him alive. The king opens the gates and lets the people in. He too would like to see the stranger alive again, so that he might know the truth after all. He shows the people the dead stranger and tells them that he has killed himself out of love for his wife. Yet, he claims, his wife is pure and therefore is in the position to subject herself to a trial from God. The people and the king virtually force her to undertake the so-called ‘bier trial’. After an internal struggle, she convinces herself to do it: yes, in the early morning hours, she will bring the dead man back to life in front of all the people.


Act Three

The people are waiting impatiently at night for the bier trial to be carried out. Hopes that many things will change in the land if Heliane manages to bring the light-bringer back to life alternate with doubts whether Heliane might not just be an ordinary woman, who does not possess these powers and did give herself to the stranger for a night after all. Heliane too endures a night full of fear and secretly hopes that she will manage to carry out the miracle. When she is finally standing at the bier, she is not able to utter the words: “Arise and transform”, since to her the very words seem blasphemous. She revokes everything she has said before and declares that it was love that brought her to the stranger. The love that every woman feels and should feel. At first the king tries to save Heliane from the people, who immediately turn into an angry mob who want to execute her, and he even offers to execute every one of them, if only she would confess to him. However, she rejects this blood sacrifice and accuses her husband of mass murder in front of everyone. The people, by now blindly supporting the king, want to attack her. At that very moment, the miracle occurs. The stranger arises from among the dead and pronounces his judgement. Now the people see Heliane as a saint and accept him as supreme judge. He prepares Heliane for the fact that he cannot protect her from death. This is the final trial she must face in her life. Shortly afterwards, the king, overcome by jealousy, stabs his wife with a dagger. The stranger banishes the king, pardons the messenger and releases the people with the prospect of a kingdom filled with happiness and freedom. He and Heliane leave the mortal world behind, a world caught in an endless cycle of sin, judgement and atonement.


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