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Engelbert Humperdinck: Königskinder
Daniel Behle (The King's Son), Amanda Majeski (The Goosegirl), Nikolay Borchv (The Minstrel), Julia Juon (The Witch), Magnus Baldvinsson (The Woodcutter), Martin Mitterutzner (The Broombinder), Chiara Bäuml (His Daughter), Franz Mayer (The Senior Councillor), Dietrich Volle (The Innkeeper), Nina Tarandak (His Daughter), Beau Gibson (The Tailor), Katharina Magiera (The Stablemaid), Thomas Charrois, Garegin Hovsepian (Gatewatchers), Claudia Grunwald (A Woman), Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Matthias Köhler (chorus master), Children's Choir, Michael Clark, Felix Lemke (directors), Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester, Sebastian Weigle (conductor)
Live recording from Oper Frankfurt (September-October, 2012) – 167’
Oehms Classics OC 943 (3 CDs) – Notes in German and English – Libretto in German

This is a very lovely and skillfully-made recording. One would never guess it is taken from live performances (Frankfurt, in the fall of 2012). Frankfurt Opera can be congratulated for doing so well by Königskinder (“The King’s Children”), which has most definitely fallen into the “rarity” (if not outright “arcana”) column of the repertory. It was premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera and seemed to be a hit for a while. It was helped by the fact that it starred Geraldine Farrar as Die Gänsemagd (the Goose Girl). She was the darling of the New York opera world, and in the production she caused a further sensation by starring with a flock of live geese.

The Phaidon Book of the Opera, published in 1977, states of Königskinder: “This opera has had many performances all over the world and still features in the repertory of several opera houses.” This seems a bit dubious in light of the fact, for example, that the 2005 production of the work at the Bavarian State Opera was the first there since 1938. The work falls into the category of Märchenoper, or fairy tale opera. Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (first performed in 1893) is far and away the most successful example of the genre. Dvorák’s Rusalka (1901) is another. Humperdinck also composed Dornröschen (“Sleeping Beauty”) premiered in 1902. The most prolific composer of fairy tale operas was Humperdinck’s pupil, Siegfried Wagner, who composed a dozen of them in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

While it may be a fairy tale opera, it is not meant for children. Its length (two hours and 45 minutes running time, in three acts) would tax their concentration limits, while the dark (almost nihilistic) ending is a challenge even to adults. Its librettist was “Ernst Rosmer” (actually Elsa Bernstein-Porges) who attempted to create a new folk tale that would take its place in the collective mythology. She was influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (uh-oh). She borrowed elements from tales by Hans Christian Andersen, such as the prince working as a swineherd. The story contains paradoxes and conundrums - for example, is the witch holding the goosegirl captive or protecting her?

The plot involves a prince going out into the world to learn more about it. The first person he meets - and falls in love with - is the goosegirl who is being held captive by the witch. He departs, leaving his crown behind. In the nearby town of Höllastadt, where the prince has found work as a swineherd, the populace clamour for a new king. The witch tells them that the person who enters at noon the next day will be their new ruler. This turns out to be the goosegirl, who is greeted by the lowly swineherd. The townspeople are aghast and reject their revealed monarchs, although the children recognize the true royalty of the humble couple. (Shades of “The Emperor’s new Clothes” - although in reverse.) In the lengthy Act III, a kindly minstrel (Der Spielmann) and the children seek the fleeing couple. Starving, they have begged for some bread which turns out to be poisoned, so only their corpses are found. No “happily ever after” here.

Humperdinck’s skill as a composer is on full display. The work was actually first done in 1897 as a play with music in which Humperdinck devised a tuned speech much like what emerged later as sprechgesang. The opera displays none of this style; much of the dialogue reminds one of the conversational style of singing found in the operas of Richard Strauss (post-Elektra). There are orchestral passages reminiscent of Wagner’s Siegfried and the somewhat mysterious atmosphere brings to mind Pelléas et Mélisande. This might sound like a bit of a hodge-podge, but it isn’t. It turned out to be the final major statement of a fine composer whose output was soon to be diminished by illness.

The cast are all well-chosen for their roles. The fresh, youthful voices of tenor Daniel Behle and soprano Amanda Majeski are ideal for the royal children. Rising young baritone Nokolay Borchev gives a glowing account of the Minstrel. He truly shines in his lengthy scena in Act III that could well be in the recital repertory of lyric baritones everywhere. Julia Juon brings gravitas to the role of Die Hexe (“The Witch”) - she is no cackling caricature. Other roles are strongly sung and the children are fine, too. It is lovingly paced by Sebastian Weigle, and balances and the the overall acoustic are just what one would wish.

While the work will never be widely performed, it deserves to be more widely known - and a translation of the libretto would be a big help. Unfortunately it is only in German in this release, and there is no on-line translation. Some kind and enlightened angel really ought to support translations of works like this (Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot would be another prime candidate). It’s great that venturesome companies (mostly) in the German-speaking world devote resources to keeping such works alive. A translation resource would help them share this with the rest of the world. (Look what surtitles did to improve audience understanding and involvement.)

Oehms Classics have now released 13 CDs from Opera Frankfurt, with a 14th (Rienzi) due next year. I eagerly anticipate more.

Michael Johnson




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