I will admit to having listened to this wonderful recording only a couple of times and am hence still sorting out in my mind what I think of it and what its real strengths and attractions are, but I am so surprised and delighted by it that I shall attempt a preliminary review.
The melodies are very broad and even meandering - but the richness, depth, power and, yes, you have to use the word when talking of Korngold, lushness of the orchestration carries the listener away on a wave of sound. As usual, I am not bothered by the naivety of the plot, nor the gaucheness of the libretto; many a more celebrated opera has far more cheesiness about it and the point is that the music transmutes any leaden limitations here into pure (Korn)gold (sorry). The most astonishing music comes in the third act, where not only the soloists but also the choir and the orchestra come into their own, changing up yet another gear and wringing the soul with this tremendous, no-holds-barred music. Comparisons are odious and it's not necessary to hold a competition between Strauss and Korngold to find who is the greater post-Romantic, but where Strauss sometimes seems embarrassed by his addiction to beauty of sound and feels compelled to write some spiky modernism into his score, Korngold just wallows and luxuriates in bitonal, harmonic complexity and "out-Strausses Strauss". Yes, there are many echoes of Puccini, too - apparently he much admired "Die tote Stadt" - but the voice is all Korngold's own.
The singing is stupendous and the singers just get better as the opera unfolds; Welker, the baritone who sings the hateful yet oddly sympathetic Ruler, Heliane's desperate husband, in particular, shakes off some bleat and harshness to sing more richly and firmly in the second and third acts. Some occasional thinness at the very top of her range apart, Tomowa-Sintow is fabulous - better here than in anything else by her I have ever heard. De Haan does a terrific job with the hellishly difficult heldentenor role; Gedda defies the years to deliver an incisively inflected performance of the Blind Judge, which is more than a mere comprimario role; Runkel is suitably nasty and powerfully voiced as the bitter, almost psychotic Messenger; Pape's performance as the Porter is a gem - his Third Act aria featuring some of the best bass-baritone singing I have yet to encounter and with a terrific top G flat - and the conductor Mauceri presides over a masterfully over-arching and controlled account of this fiendishly complex score. It is recorded in wonderful Decca sound - a real spectacular especially on good equipment.
I shall need several more hearings before I can get to grips emotionally and intellectually with this piece. I'm no musician and I suspect that at this stage I admire more than I love this music, as I cannot always grasp its shape, but I know that repeated listenings and greater familiarity will bring further rewards; I am certainly very glad I have discovered it and recommend it to any lover of romantic Grand Opera and the voice.