Opera UK, May 2013
George Hall
Königskinder, Humperdinck
Humperdinck's second most successful opera had a splashy and highly successful launch at the New York Met in 1910, garnering 39 performances there up to 1914, and quickly appeared at Covent Garden, with five performances between 1911 and 1913; neither house, however, has thus far returned to it. An earlier version of the piece (1897), which began as a melodrama, had already been widely performed. The opera itself, to a libretto derived from the play by Elsa BernsteinPorges (writing under the pseudonym Ernst Rosmer), is a made-up fairy tale, placing the piece firmly inside the Märchenoper tradition. After Konigskinder had done the international rounds, it largely disappeared, though revivals in recent decades (including an important ENO staging in 1992 and one in Munich in 2005) seem to be becoming more and more regular. The piece makes its first appearance on DVD in a 2010 Zurich staging that proves, as a whole, highly recommendable.

Humperdinck's score is hard to fault, unless one finds the last act a little on the long side. But the composer was a master of his relatively conservative idiom, behind which lies Wagner in general and Parsifal in particular. An infinitely darker piece than Hansel and Gretel (which at least has a 'happy' ending), Konigskinder is superbly composed throughout.

It is arguably more problematic as a drama, partly because the geese initially attending the central character of the Goose-Girl are never going to be easy to realize on stage (Zurich makes do with two-dimensional white cut-outs, each with its own handle), but also because it's hard to comprehend exactly what Porges meant by the notion of kingship—presumably some sort of spiritual superiority, innate rather than necessarily inherited. Whatever is intended, the couple's brutal rejection by the gruesome inhabitants of the town of Hellabrunn (with the notable exception of the children, and the mysterious Fiddler) forces them towards Parsifal-like wanderings and ultimately death, when, starving, they eat the poisoned loaf earlier baked by the Goose-Girl at the behest of the Witch—who has in the meantime been burned. It must be one of the most downbeat endings of any late-Romantic opera—which is saying something.

Enigmatic or not, the piece exerts a tangible fascination, though the Zurich staging moves it beyond the orbit of fairy-tale imagery into something more familiar, if less coherent. The Witch, a teacher who grows and sells cannabis, is raided at the beginning of the second act, which follows straight on from the first. The unit set then apparently turns into a village hall, where the Innkeeper plies his dishonest trade, and which is semi-ruined in Act 3, when the King's Son and the Goose-Girl return to it to die. Devoid of much of the traditional apparatus, the production is nevertheless convincingly acted by the entire cast.

Musically, too, this is a superior performance, with excellent orchestral playing and the conductor Ingo Metzmacher maintaining momentum as he highlights the score's many beauties. Reviewing the production for the Financial Times in 2007, Shirley Apthorp described Jonas Kaufmann as 'the fairytale prince of most opera-goers' dreams', and one can only concur; it is hard to imagine the role better sung or acted. But Isabel Rey is almost equally impressive as the Goose-Girl, while Liliana Nikiteanu presents a splendidly fearsome Witch, and Oliver Widmer an aptly dour Fiddler; the numerous smaller roles are all finely taken. Since this is the only currently available DVD, there are no alternatives to compare, but the virtues of this version are in any case self-evident.

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