Humperdinck: Konigskinder / Weigle, Frankfurter Opern- Und Museumsorchester

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HUMPERDINCK Königskinder • Sebastian Weigle, cond; Daniel Behle ( The King’s Son ); Amanda Majeski ( The Goose Girl ); Nikolay Borchev ( The Musician...

HUMPERDINCK Königskinder Sebastian Weigle, cond; Daniel Behle ( The King’s Son ); Amanda Majeski ( The Goose Girl ); Nikolay Borchev ( The Musician ); Julia Juon ( Witch ); Magnus Baldvinsson ( Woodchopper ); Martin Mitterutzner ( Broom-maker ); Franz Mayer ( Councillor ); Dietrich Volle ( Innkeeper ); Chiara Bäumi ( Innkeeper’s Daughter ); Frankfurt Op Ch; Frankfurt Op & Museum O OEHMS 943 (3 CDs: 166:00 & German only) Live: Frankfurt 9–10/2012

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Königskinder, like Auber’s Muette de Portici and Weber’s Euryanthe, was one of those operas on my “bucket list”—works I had heard about, and perhaps knew one or two excerpts from, but had never heard complete. As it turned out, I loved the Auber opera but found the Weber interminably dull except for the famous Overture, the latter an opinion (I learned) shared by legendary opera critic Herman Klein. As for Königskinder, which despite its translation as King’s Children is better known as “The Goose Girl” (anyone who has seen them will never forget the photos of Geraldine Farrar leading her geese across the Metropolitan Opera stage), it has often been described as dull music or, at the very best, not half as good as Hänsel und Gretel. I beg to differ. The music is entirely different—more fully developed, at some points almost symphonically, longer of course, and a bit darker as the opera progresses since, unlike Hänsel, it doesn’t have a happy ending—but I found it a work of excellent quality. To my non-child-like mind, in fact, I found it superior as a musical and dramatic experience to Hänsel und Gretel.

But I am only discussing the music here. Reading the booklet, and looking at the photos of this production, given in Frankfurt during September and October 2012, one is horrified by what one sees. The plot, for those who don’t know it, is this: The goose girl is really a princess under the spell of a witch, with whom she lives. The witch forces the goose girl to bake cursed, deadly bread daily, but the latter puts a blessing on it so that whoever eats it will not die but see beautiful visions. A king’s son (a prince) suddenly appears: he has left his father’s castle to learn about people and the world. The pair meet and fall in love, but after he leaves the witch, sensing that a man has been in her house, locks the goose girl up. She escapes. There is a sub-plot in which a minstrel, a woodchopper and a broom-maker ask the witch to help them find a king, but that need not concern us. The goose girl enters the town square at noon with a crown on her head; when the prince arrives, she puts the crown on his head; but the people, thinking they have been made fools of, angrily chase them out of town (and accidentally break the minstrel’s leg). Later, it is winter; the prince and goose girl, cold and hungry, eventually arrive at the witch’s hut. They discover that the witch was burned at the stake and the minstrel lives there now. The prince gives the woodchopper his crown in return for some old bread to eat. They don’t realize that this is one of the pieces of cursed bread; they eat it, and die in the snow.

Well, so far, so good. But if you flip the booklet back a few pages, you’ll see pictures of a threadbare stage with young people, dressed almost in rags, either starving or on the verge of death. In one picture, the word “Hellawald” is written in large chalk letters across the front of the stage; in another, decapitated, angry pigs’ heads surround two men in black uniforms with the words “Hölle Stadt” (Hell City) painted on the backdrop. This isn’t a fairy tale any more. Flip back a few more pages, and they explain this to you. Fairy tales are for saps, and the non-happy ending of this one indicates, to the director of this production, a dark, surreal quality based on Freud’s references to “the world of imagination of the fairytale” which “framed the agony of the genre.” Some people “even said that the fairytale died long ago … buried somewhere, perhaps in a mass grave.” Further reference is made to Brundibár, Hans Krása’s fairytale-children’s opera, “performed over 50 times by Jewish children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp,” thus becoming the memorial work for “all children who died in the Holocaust….The children were deported to the east after the performance and gassed; so was the composer.” Thus we now have poor Humperdinck’s opera made an example of the horrors of the Holocaust he never lived to witness (he died in 1921). Say goodbye to Gerry Farrar’s jolly little goose girl costume. This is now pretty gritty stuff.

I’m not sure if a DVD of this production has been released—at least, I haven’t seen one yet—but personally, I’d recommend getting this audio-only recording, ripping out the photos in the booklet referencing the harshness and gritty reality of gassed children, and take it on its own merits. Because this is an absolutely splendid performance of the music, and that, in essence, is what carries the story, not storm trooper-directed pigs’ heads or starving children in “Hell City.” Sebastian Weigle is quite obviously a master conductor; he moves things at a splendid pace, shaping and enlivening the music with so much pointing, and a tremendous range of orchestral colors that alternately lighten and darken the mood of the music, that in the end I found it as miraculous a conducting job as that of Rudolf Kempe in his 1956 recording of Meistersinger. Moreover, he has an absolutely splendid cast to work with. Soprano Majewski as the goose girl has a splendidly youthful, bright-sounding voice, almost like Geraldine Farrar but with a piquant flicker-vibrato that I found to be extremely attractive. Tenor Behle has one of those light tenor voices that one hears as extremely fine but quintessentially German, like the similar voices of Georg Maikl or Peter Schreier. One might not ideally want to hear Behle sing Italian opera, regardless of the suitability to his vocal size, but in anything German he sounds ideal. Borschev, as the musician, has an equally lovely baritone voice, sounding a bit like a younger, lighter-voiced Bernd Weikl.

Another point in this recording’s favor is the excellent vocal acting if the principals. I, like a few other critics at Fanfare, have complained of the modern tendency of singers to sing everything correctly as per the score but give almost nothing in terms of characterization. This tendency, by the way, is not accidental; it is often bred into singers as a way of making them more versatile for whatever kind of production a crackpot director can come up with; but here, despite our Pigs ‘n’ Nazis Holocaust stage settings, the singers all act out their music with wonderful attention to the words. I only wish that Oehms Classics had provided an English translation of the libretto; but nowadays we should be happy they give us any words at all.

But best of all is the way the music simply tumbles out of your speakers. It is as if no effort whatsoever went into the rehearsals, as if everyone—principal singers, secondary singers, the orchestra, even the children’s chorus—had simply learned this music so well that they could play and sing it in their sleep. The flow of the opera is continuous; you are never bored for so much as one minute. It all keeps moving, and flowing, and changing in mood and color, and you as a listener are completely swept away by it. Yes, Virginia, there are good fairy-tale operas!

The only other recording of this work I’ve heard, at least in part, is the 2008 one with Juliane Banse as the goose girl, Klaus Florian Vogt as the prince, and Ingo Metzmacher conducting. Vogt has one of the most remarkably beautiful voices of our time, but is not much of an interpreter. Banse has a very nice voice, but one with just a touch of dryness in her tone which Majewski avoids; more to the point, conductor Ingo Metzmacher is merely routine, whereas Weigle is spectacular in his range of colors and moods. There is also a 2005 recording conducted by Fabio Luisi on Profil, with soprano Dagmar Schellenberger and tenor Thomas Moser, and a 1952 radio broadcast on Gala 530 with a young Fischer-Dieskau as the musician, Peter Anders as the prince, Käthe Möller-Siepermann as the goose girl, and the excellent conductor Richard Kraus, but I haven’t heard them. (A 1976 Helen Donath-Adolf Dallapozza-Hermann Prey-Heinz Wallberg recording was also available once on EMI CDs, but I couldn’t find it still listed as available online.) The great tenor Jonas Kaufman also has a DVD performance available on Decca 1744909, but even though he still has Tamino in his repertoire, both roles are too light for his present-day voice (he started out in lighter roles, but by the mid-2000s had moved into Florestan and other bigger parts), and Metzmacher is again the conductor.

You can’t go wrong with this recording; it is, quite simply, one of the greatest I’ve ever heard of any opera, regardless of genre. Another point in its favor: perhaps because the singers were generally motionless onstage, either dying or being tortured by concentration camp guards (and their pigs), there is almost no stage noise to be heard in this performance. Forget the dreary photos of Hellawald and Hölle Stadt—just put the CDs on and enjoy!

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 27, 2013

  • UPC: 4260034869431

  • Catalog Number: OC943

  • Label: Oehms Classics

  • Number of Discs: 3

  • Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck

  • Conductor: Sebastian Weigle

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra, Frankfurt Opera Chorus

  • Performer: Amanda Majeski, Chiara Bäuml, Daniel Behle, Franz Mayer, Julia Juon, Magnus Baldvinsson, Martin Mitterrutzner, Nikolay Borchev