Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Fairy-tale opera in three acts, libretto by Elsa Bernstein-Porges (1866-1949)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
A co-production of Dutch National Opera and Naxos
rec. 2022, Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Naxos 2.110759 DVD 
Is Engelbert Humperdinck a one-work composer? Recent recordings suggest ‘no’. His stage works are now on disc, as are orchestral works, chamber works and songs. Even so, the golden spark of inspiration really only struck once, with impressive results. Many have heard Hänsel und Gretel, and surely have admired its melodic fecundity and the complete appropriateness of the music and the libretto. He never had another success like it.
Humperdinck’s next opera, composed some seventeen years later, was Königskinder (King’s Children). It had a world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, starring no less than Geraldine Farrar as The Goose Girl, and was intensively reported by the press -but repeat productions have been infrequent at best.
Humperdinck had assisted Wagner at Bayreuth on the first performance of Parsifal, and acted as Siegfried Wagner’s tutor. He had an intimate knowledge of Wagner’s music, so unsurprisingly he was greatly influenced by The Master. He chose as librettist the Jewish playwright Elsa Bernstein, writing under the pseudonym Ernst Rosmer, in whose bleak fairy tale cruelty triumphs over goodness (there is a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia).
Stage director Christof Loy strongly portrays the cruelty of a society that rejects children. There is a several-month gap in the events between Acts 2 and 3. During the prelude to the third act, he plays a silent black-and-white film to portray what goes on in Hellastadt, the curiously named town where the action takes place. Hella is a girl’s name in Greek, meaning ‘successful’ or ‘holy’, and Stadt is German for ‘town’; also, Hellas is the Greek name for Greece. I wonder whether the librettist had elements of recent Greek history in mind. Loy also explores through dance how the younger generation might rise above the narrow-mindedness of the adults. The libretto has fairy-tale elements – magic spells, a wicked witch and a runaway prince, for example – but at its core it tells a very political story, a warning against societal selfishness, materialism and the marginalisation of others.
The visually striking presentation is nearly all white. A continuous curved wall embraces the set comprising a hut and a giant linden tree, present all the time. In the first act, the tree provides shelter for the love of the young couple; in the second, it presides over the activity in the town; in the third act, set in winter, it sheds its leaves. The costumes are 19th century-ish, mostly white or grey-white-beige, with an occasional splash of colour or a black coat. The simplicity of the set goes to show that modern, minimalist productions can work very well indeed, so long as the producer does not indulge in strange symbolic effects that leave the audience baffled.
Soprano Olga Kulchynska as the Goose Girl deploys her youthful, clear yet warm soprano voice to gratifying effect. Tenor Daniel Behle as the King’s son also sounds ideal. Their final duet as the opera nears its end, as their voices drift into silence, has a fair degree of emotional effect. Baritone Josef Wagner and mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel sing two other main characters, the Fiddler and the Witch. Both are splendid. As the two lovers die, the voice of the Fiddler mingles with theirs: quiet but immensely effective. I was astonished to discover that Doris Soffel was 74 when this production was made. Her voice remains warm and firm. In fact, there does not seem to be a weak link in the entire cast. They do not only sing well: they all act well. At several moments in the score, a solo violin rises above the voices and orchestra. Violinist Camille Joubert, dressed in black male evening attire, strolls on stage to play her instrument.
But, and it is a big but, Humperdinck gives no truly memorable melodies to any member of the cast. The music proceeds in its warm and lyrical way, very occasionally rising with some power. I sat up at the point in the second act where the Goose Girl, wearing a crown, mingles with the crowd. The music swells with stately splendour, but only for a few seconds. In some respects, the musically most effective section in the opera occurs when the Witch tells the Goose Girl’s history: born of a hangman’s daughter, fathered by a hangman who was himself condemned to hang. Doom-laden drum beats accompany the music: very, very effective.
Is the music Wagnerian? I suppose so, but the quiet sections, as in the death scene mentioned above, point to Humperdinck’s talents. It is not Wagnerian bombast. Instead, lyrical, flowing phrases carry the audience along in a warm bath of sound. Regrettably, I can see one principal reason why this opera will not become a repertory staple. That is not because it ends sadly, but because it lacks true memorability. There are no soaring love duets, for example. I doubt that anyone, having sat through it, would leave humming a tune.
The adult chorus and the children’s chorus sing with accuracy and conviction, and the orchestra is on top form. The sound quality is very good, and the set lighting is very well judged.
I have enjoyed Königskinder very much, and so should you.
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Der Königssohn (The King’s Son) Daniel Behle, Tenor
Die Gänsemagd (The Goose Girl) Olga Kulchynska, Soprano
Der Spielmann (The Minstrel) Josef Wagner, Baritone
Die Hexe (The Witch) Doris Soffel, Mezzo-soprano
Der Holzhacker (The Woodcutter) Sam Carl, Bass-baritone
Der Besenbinder (The Broom Maker) Michael Pflumm, Tenor
Die Tochter des Besenbinders (The Broom Maker’s Daughter) Isabel Houtmortels, Soprano
Der Ratsälteste (The Senior Councillor) Henk Poort, Baritone
Der Wirt (The Innkeeper) Roger Smeets, Baritone
Die Wirtstochter (The Innkeeper’s Daughter) Kai Ruutel, Mezzo-soprano
Der Schneider (The Tailor) Lucas Van Lierop, Tenor
Die Stallmagd (The Stable Girl) Eva Kroon, Mezzo-soprano
Ein Torwächter (A Gatekeeper) Hans Pieter Herman, Baritone
Ein Torwächter (A Gatekeeper) Christiaan Peters, Bass
Eine Frau (A Woman) Yvonne Kok, Mezzo-soprano
Die Liebe (Love) Camille Joubert, Violin
Chorus of Dutch National Opera/Edward Ananian-Cooper
Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor/Anaïs de la Morandais
Mario Branco, Lela Di Constanzo, Facundo Ebenegger, Yuka Eda, Alina Fejzo, Nicky Van Kleef, Niall Machin, Sofia Garcia Miramon, Guillaume Rabain, Reindert Van Rijn, Sien Vanderostijne, Lotte Aimée De Weert
Stage Director: Christof Loy
Film Directo:r Michael Beyer
Set Designer: Johannes Leiacker
Costume Designer: Barbara Drosihn
Lighting Designer: Olaf Winter
Dramaturge: Klaus Bertisch
Subtitles in German, English, Dutch, Japanese, Korean
NTSC 16:9, Dolby Digital 2.0 and Surround 5.1, Region 0 (Worldwide), DVD 9.