International Record Review, January 2014
John T. Hughes

Humperdinck: Königskinder
It was only in October that I reviewed a performance of Königskinder in IRR: the Oehms Classics set with Amanda Majeski and Daniel Behle as the young couple. I found it 'a convincing representation' of the work but one marred as I heard it by the poor balance, which made the orchestra 'too insistent and unrelenting'. (To put an opposite opinion I point out that the review in the December issue of Opera found the recording 'outstanding') That set had the German text in the booklet but no English translation. The new issue, my second this month of a concert from the Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon Festival, goes one worse in having no libretto in any language, although the back insert in the box informs us that one can be downloaded. This new release serves the listener badly in the paucity of tracks, having a total of only 14, as against 32 on Calig (CAL50968/70) and 47 on Oehms.

I do not want to use space by repeating the story, apart from saying that the Goose Girl and the King's Son fall in love, are driven from the town by its inhabitants and die in the forest after eating a poisoned loaf. The third important figure is the Fiddler, to whom falls the work's most recorded excerpt: 'Verdorben! Gestorben!', in the final scene. It has fared well in complete recordings: Hermann Prey, Dietrich Henschel and, in the Oehms issue, Nikolay Borchev. Detlef Roth, in this Montpellier set, treats it to a reflective, introspective and sad request to the children with him to kneel by the frozen bodies of the young lovers.

On a couple of occasions in 2013 I praised Roth's interpretations and singing, and his inflections and varying dynamics enhance his performance in his role here. If one is looking for comparisons, however, one faces a choice between Roth and Borchev that is not easy or obvious, for, as I wrote in October, Borchev also has focused tone and, like Roth, well portrays the sympathetic figure that is the Fiddler.

Anyone wanting to add Königskinder (or an extra version of it) to the collection will be on safe ground as regards the performance whether the choice is Oehms or Accord: maybe it will come down to particular artists. I can foresee the present recording catching the eye of admirers of Jonas Kaufmann, the most well-known singer in the two casts, but in spite of his presence selection is not clear-cut. Sebastian Weigle draws power from the Frankfurt forces but not to the extent of over-playing the intimate scenes. It is only a matter of seconds that is the difference between his overall timing and that of Armin Jordan in Montpellier, though Accord extends the latter's time by retaining a fair amount of applause at the end of the acts. In some ways, Jordan's reading seems calmer than Weigle's, possibly having something to do with the relative recorded acoustics or balances. One section of the Accord recording which is not good is that with the town councilors, in which the Woodcutter is so far back that one could wonder whether Jaco Huijpen, who sings the role, had not quite managed to reach the stage. Apart from that
miscalculation the sound is very good.

This Montpellier performance is superior to that from Frankfurt in the casting of the Witch. There it is Julia Juon, who is not inadequate, but Nora Gubisch produces a darker, more forbidding tone that is apt for the role. I hope that nobody will employ a man to sing the part at some time, as has unfortunately been done with the counterpart in Hansel and Gretel. That witch is frightening to the youngsters but can be a source of humour, of which there is none in Königskinder, where she is more malevolent, even more than the Innkeeper's Daughter, whose spiteful reaction when the King's Son does not succumb to her seductive approaches is surely communicated by Mareen Knoth. In their respective roles as the Fiddler's companions, Fabrice Montegna (the Broommaker) and the aforementioned Huijpen provide assured performances, but the former is less attractive in tone than Oehms's Martin Mitterrutzner. Worthy contributions come from the secure-toned Innkeeper of Henk Neven, who, to judge by his numerous broadcasts on the BBC, seems to devote more time nowadays to song recitals than to opera, and from the focused singing of Diana Schmid as the Stablemaid.

The Goose Girl of Ofelia Sala is less extrovert than that of Majeski but cleaner of tone, more controlled, giving the impression that her young woman is more susceptible than Majeski's, her innocence clearly defined. Vocally, she shows a lightish timbre, shining but not glaring: a fresh spring morning rather than the blaze of a summer afternoon. Perhaps her voice loses a little steadiness under pressure but less so than her rival's: both sopranos are definitely worth hearing.

Maybe the pairings would be more equal if each lady had the other's tenor to sing the King's Son. Kaufmann (with name printed in larger letters than Sala's, Roth's and Gubisch's on the front of the case) has, as we know, a darkish colouring to his voice. We know too, or should do, that he makes appropriate use of his instrument, which he projects along a flowing line. In the last act, when the young people return through the snow, he adjusts the strength of his voice and the dynamics as life ebbs away. Be aware, however, that Behle also performs the role fittingly in the Oehms set and should not be overlooked merely because he is less famous than Kaufmann.

Both issues contain laudable performances, and one may, of course, side with Christopher Webber in Opera when it comes to the quality of the recording, but please do not go to the trouble of writing to say which way you lean: it's opinion, not Holy Writ.

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