Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is one of the best loved works in German language in the operatic repertoire. It is only curious that few opera-goers fancy to discover the composer’s other opera, Königskinder. The ready-made opinion about it is that this is a failed Märchenoper, but the truth is that Königskinder is a far more ambitious work that eschews any classification. It does indeed have elements of fairytale – a witch who keeps a beautiful girl as her prisoner out of a spell, to start with. But the remaining aspects of this complex libretto have more to do with the Anderson of The Little Match Girl and She was Good for Nothing than with the Brothers Grimm, plus a touch of symbolism to round off.
Accordingly, Humperdinck’s score is musically more challenging than that of his previous opera – the Goose Girl and the King’s Son’s scenes suggesting rather Gurrelieder, part one, than Der Rosenkavalier. In that sense, I cannot think of a better conductor for this score than Ingo Metzmacher, who took even the more folkloric passages in a serious, large-scaled manner, abounding in dense orchestral sound with breathtaking instrumental effect. I wonder what he would have done if he had conducted R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten last month in the same venue.
Metzmacher had splendid soloists at his disposal, particularly Jonas Kaufmann, who sang the role of the King’s Son with unfailing dark yet ductile sound and admirable variety, savouring the text and producing the necessary boyish impression rather from the freshness of his interpretation than from a voice whose tonal quality a tiny bit more heroic than what is required. He also possesses a most likable stage presence and the talent of being funny without resorting to clownishness, as he proved to be during act II. Although Isabel Rey’s soprano does not display any inbuilt charm in this role (particularly if one has Helen Donath in EMI’s studio recording in his memory), she does a very clean and unproblematic job out of it. However, this is an instance when the vocal side of an operatic performance is just one part of an otherwise far more attractive package. The Spanish soprano achieves here the rare deed in operatic stages of making the audience forget that she is performing at all – when Isabel Rey was on stage this evening, she simply was the Goose Girl in her disarming innocent radiance. An example of great artistry.
The role of the Minstrel is a bit heavy for Oliver Widmer. He produced round forceful top notes, but a larger voice would have allowed him a mellower, more congenial singing, as the role requires. On the other hand, Liliana Nikiteanu was an excellent Witch, a rich-toned, intelligent performance. All minor role were ideally cast with house values, such as Reinhard Mayr and Boguslaw Bidzinski.
I have said that director Jens-Daniel Herzog lacked friends to tell him when things were going wrong when I saw his erratic staging of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Dresden, but it seems that his friends only were unwilling to go to Dresden. In his beautiful and creative staging of Königskinder, he decided to set the story at some point between the 50’s and 60’s, in which middle classes were convinced to trade traditional values for a business-oriented concept of success measured in money, a world that leaves very little space to independent thinking. Thus, the Goose Girl is shown as an orphan tutored (in vain) to hate mankind by a crazy-scientist-like Witch in her secluded laboratory; the King’s Son is an almost beatnik character in his on-the-road search for his own identity outside the role society has reserved him; and Hellastadt is shown as countryside smallville in which everybody would sell their souls for Burger King. Although this seems to be excessively brainstormy, the concept runs quite smoothly in its simplicity and elegance, not to mention that the direction of actors in exemplary in its spontaneity, meaningfulness and relation to the score. This certainly deserves to be released on DVD.