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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Königskinder - Fairytale opera in Three Acts (1897-1907)
Daniel Behle (tenor) - King's son
Amanda Majeski (soprano) - Goose Girl
Nikolay Borchev (baritone) - Minstrel/Fiddler
Julia Juon (contralto) - Witch
Magnús Baldvinsson (bass) - Wood-cutter
Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor) - Broom-maker
Chiara Bäuml (contralto) - His daughter (stable-girl)
Franz Mayer (baritone) - Senior Councillor
Dietrich Volle (bass) - Host/Innkeeper
Nina Tarandek (mezzo) - Innkeeper's daughter
Beau Gibson (tenor) - The Tailor
Katharina Magiera - Milkmaid
Thomas Charrois (tenor) - Gatekeeper 1
Garegin Hovsepian (baritone) - Gatekeeper 2
Claudia Grunwald - A woman
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. September and October 2012, Oper Frankfurt
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 943 [3 CDs: 64:17 + 40:03 + 61:41] 

Humperdinck’s Königskinder was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in December 1910, just a few days after the premiere there of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. While it has never achieved the huge popularity of Hänsel und Gretel, it has maintained a position at the fringes of the repertory. In Germany it has in recent years achieved a stronger position than that.
 
The story is an original one but has its roots in German folklore. It is a deeply tragic tale in which the leading characters - the Prince and the Goose-Girl - both die of poisoning. Anyone who knows Humperdinck’s music will recognise his personality in this score. Even more than in its predecessor Hänsel und Gretel, the musical language in Königskinder is distinctly Wagnerian. It’s through-composed and places a strong reliance on a system of leitmotifs, delivered amid richly-scored chromatic harmonies. There is a good English synopsis to be found at the website of the Bavarian State Opera, which is much clearer in both style and presentation than what is found in the booklet accompanying this Oehms Classics recording.
 
Sebastian Weigle conducts a strongly articulated performance, recorded very successfully, live at Frankfurt in the autumn of 2012. Audience noise is minimal, nor are there those bangs and crashes from the stage which can so easily mar a recording or a live event. The singers acquit themselves with distinction. They are either beautiful in tone and contour, or dramatically involved, as the case may be.
 
The chorus has an important role and sings very well, while the orchestral playing is splendid too, including a significant part for solo violin, though the concert master is not identified in the booklet. The recorded sound responds to the chamber music delicacy of much of the score. It also delivers the fuller-toned outbursts, as for example at ‘Vivat, der Holzhacker! Vivat, der Besenbinder!’ during Act Two, when the chorus and orchestra could hardly project the music more powerfully. Another highlight comes at the opening of Act 3 with some wonderfully refined playing. Full marks then for the musical standards achieved here.
 
The cast is a strong one with a good sense of teamwork. The dark character of the `Hexe’ (Witch) is altogether more sinister than her equivalent in Hänsel und Gretel. This is hardly surprising since she eventually promotes the children’s deaths. The Swiss mezzo-soprano Julia Juon takes the role most effectively, and her interpretation is more than a mere caricature. The Russian baritone Nikolay Borchev sings the role of the Minstrel, who has the task of explaining the tragic resolution of the story. He is a lyric tenor of some distinction, and his music is given a most appealing allure. The German tenor Daniel Behle, in the role of the Königssohn, is also assured, and he copes well with the demands of the frequently high tessitura. The American soprano Amanda Majeski as the Goose-Girl is on excellent form too.
 
The musical aspects of this performance of Königskinder are very satisfying, but the accompanying documentation offers the opera only indifferent support. There is a full libretto in German but no English translation; nor is there any attempt to match the accessing cue points with the outline in the synopsis of the story. There are abundant illustrations taken from the Frankfurt production, but these achieve little or nothing. The experience for the listener encountering this recording of the opera is that it is possible for their own sake to enjoy the sounds that are generated, both vocal and orchestral, while not having any more than the faintest idea of what is going on. For the non-German speaker, this is a missed opportunity.
 
Terry Barfoot 

Previous review: John Sheppard