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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Königskinder - Fairy Tale opera in three acts (1910) [166:01]
The King’s Son - Daniel Behle (tenor); The Goose-Girl - Amanda Majeski (soprano); The Fiddler - Nikolay Borchev (baritone); The Witch - Julia Juon (mezzo); The Woodcutter - Magnus Baldvinsson (bass); The Broom-maker - Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor); The Senior Counsellor - Franz Mayer (bass); The Innkeeper - Dietrich Volle (bass); The Innkeeper’s daughter - Nina Tarandek (mezzo); The tailor - Beau Gibson (tenor); The stable-maid - Katharina Magiera (mezzo)
Chorus, Children’s Chorus and Orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, Opera House, Frankfurt, September-October 2012
German libretto included
OEHMS OC943 [3 CDs: 64:17 + 40:03 + 61:41]

Although Königskinder is based on a story by the Brothers Grimm, it has little else in common with the composer’s earlier and better known work, Hänsel und Gretel. It ends sadly, it makes much less use of folksy tunes, and the “Royal children” of the title seem much more mature than their peasant predecessors. In its original version of 1897 it was even more different as it employed a form of melodrama very like Schoenberg’s later sprechgesang. It is however heard here in the revision of 1910 which is more conventionally operatic as is usual in those few opera houses in which the work is performed at all. It is nonetheless a matter of regret that the opportunity was missed to give listeners the chance of experiencing the work in its first version, which would have given this set a substantial unique selling point.
Königskinder is very much an ensemble work, and it is indeed this aspect which is the main virtue of this recording. There are three leading roles - the two Royal children and the Fiddler - but numerous more minor characters, from the Witch who has an important part in the First Act but is not heard again, to the various townsfolk heard in the Second Act. The great virtue of this set is that these smaller parts are consistently well characterised. One might complain that Julia Juon as the Witch sounds somewhat shrill at times but equally one can regard it as apt characterisation. Certainly she contrasts well with Amanda Majeski as the Goose-Girl who sings with great beauty of tone. Daniel Behle as the King’s Son also sings with great conviction even if his light voice seems at times to have difficulty in rising above some of the more fully scored passages. Nikolay Borchev sounds very youthful as the Fiddler, and in his great final scene - Verdorben! Gestorben! - he fails to make this the climax of the whole opera that it can and should be. Despite these weaknesses I very much enjoyed the freshness with which all three of the main singers approached their parts.
The real heroes of this performance however are the orchestra who play with great control and sensitivity under Sebastian Weigle. That goes for a great deal in this work, and together with the freshness of the principals and the excellent ensemble playing of the many other soloists there is much to recommend this as a recording of the opera. It is however against apparently strong competition at lower prices from a number of more starrily cast recent recordings although as I have not heard them I cannot be more certain. Oehms give little encouragement to non-German speakers to choose this set as they include the full libretto in German only. In such a loquacious work and with a Second Act with so many characters involved it is essential to be able to follow the words in detail. I have made use of an English libretto published in 1929 for an early BBC broadcast of the work - the translated names of the characters in the cast list above come from this version. The translation by Charles Henry Meltzer has its comical moments (“My naked feet no more will be weary, With rosy lips I’ll sing to my dearie” and suchlike) but it is sufficient to ensure that the listener gets at least the gist of what is being said. If only Oehms had included this or it was available on line I could be more enthusiastic about this set. Certainly anyone who has enjoyed Hänsel und Gretel should try to one of the several recordings currently available. The present set has many solid virtues, but its price and the lack of an English libretto are likely to tell against it in some quarters.
John Sheppard