03 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Engelbert Humperdinck – KÖNIGSKINDER (D. Behle, A. Majeski, N. Borchev, J. Juon; Oehms Classics OC 943)

Engelbert Humperdinck: KÖNIGSKINDER (Oehms Classics OC 943)

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921): Königskinder—D. Behle (Königssohn), A. Majeski (Gänsemagd), N. Borchev (Spielmann), J. Juon (Hexe), M. Baldvinsson (Holzhacker), M. Mitterrutzner (Besenbinder), C. Bäuml (Sein Töchterchen), F. Mayer (Ratsäleste), D. Volle (Wirt), N. Tarandek (Wirtstochter), B. Gibson (Schneider), K. Magiera (Stallmagd), T. Charrois (1. Torwächter), G. Hovsepian (2. Torwächter), C. Grunwald (Eine Frau); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester; Sebastian Weigle [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt in September and October 2012; Oehms Classics OC 943; 3CD, 166:02; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and other major music retailers]

Premièred at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with a cast that included Geraldine Farrar as the Gänsemagd and Herman Jadlowker as the Königssohn, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Königskinder received sixteen performances in its début season in New York.  Audiences were utterly charmed by the simplicity, dignity, and humor of Farrar’s impersonation of the guileless goose-girl, and aside from finding a few too many echoes of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Humperdinck’s score critics, too, granted Königskinder a warm welcome.  There was in the course of three seasons a reversal of the opera’s fortunes, however: the MET gave the Company’s thirty-ninth performance of Königskinder in April 1914, and in the century since Farrar last pursued her prince in that performance the opera has not been heard at the MET.  Humperdinck’s score was also admired at its 1911 European première in Berlin, but Königskinder has remained in the shadow of Humperdinck’s most celebrated creation, Hänsel und Gretel, with which it shares the composer’s designation of ‘Märchenoper,’ or ‘fairy-tale opera.’  Hänsel und Gretel is unquestionably the more famous and frequently-performed piece, but Königskinder is the more musically substantial score, a fact confirmed inarguably by this elegant, heartfelt performance from Oper Frankfurt.

The liner notes that accompany this Oehms Classics release are meticulous in relaying that this is a ‘live recording of the staged opera’ made during performances in September and October 2012.  It is well that this is emphasized, for so clean is the sound that the uninformed listener might take this for a recording of concert performances.  There are noises to be heard, of course, inevitable in live performances, but absent are the clunking of scenery and heavy footfalls that mar many live recordings of operas, as well as noticeable intrusions from the audience.  The production is perhaps to be thanked for this, at least in part: the photos of the staging reproduced in the liner notes reveal a dreary, colorless staging with virtually all of the characters dressed in rags.  People seemingly pop in and out of manholes like prairie dogs, and there is an abundance of cardboard swords and foil crowns.  The great benefit of an audio recording is that it enables the imaginative listener to conjure his or her own staging in the mind’s eye, and this performance provides ample fodder for creating in the space beyond sight and hearing a compelling production of Königskinder all of one’s own.

Sebastian Weigle, Principal Music Director of Alte Oper Frankfurt, has proved himself to be an unusually versatile conductor, leading thrilling performances of repertory as different as Wagner’s Ring, verismo, and the operas of Aribert Reimann.  In this performance of Königskinder, he convincingly identifies and celebrates the individual aspects of Humperdinck’s artistry, downplaying the influence of Wagner.  Conducting with an ideal blend of drive, keeping the performance moving, and expansiveness, never hurrying lyrical passages that need a broad approach in order to make their full effects, Maestro Weigle glories in the mystery of Humperdinck’s sound world, especially in Act Two.  There is a sadness—or, perhaps more appropriately, a wistfulness—lurking even in the most jovial pages of the score, and Maestro Weigle’s sensitive pacing of the opera allows this melancholy to perceptibly flow through each scene without bogging down the performance.  Maestro Weigle’s efforts are brilliantly seconded by the singing of the Chor der Oper Frankfurt, including the children of the Kinderchor, and the playing of the Frankfurter Oper- und Museumorchester.  The Orchestra’s concertmaster is not identified by name, but the solo violin playing—critical to the performance—is consistently lovely.  There are occasional passages featuring high strings and harp that could almost find homes in Lohengrin or Parsifal, and these are both gorgeously played and sumptuously recorded.  Much of Humperdinck’s music in Königskinder is of an almost chamber music-like delicacy, which inspires Maestro Weigle and the Orchestra to playing of great refinement.  When large outpourings of tone are required, as in ‘Vivat, der Holzhacker! Vivat, der Besenbinder!’ in Act Two, chorus and orchestra respond unreservedly, sending javelins of sound hurtling into the rafters.  The playing of the extended ‘Einleitung’ that launches Act Three reaches lofty heights of emotional engagement.  From beginning to end of the recording, it is wonderful to hear the Frankfurt forces lavishing on Humperdinck’s music the same dedication and musical integrity that made their Ring unforgettable.

The secondary characters in Königskinder all contribute significantly to the drama, whether they are given two lines or two scenes in which to make their marks.  Oper Frankfurt assembled a world-class supporting cast for this production, led by the Holzbacker (Woodcutter) of Icelandic bass Magnús Baldvinsson and the Besenbinder (Broom-maker) of German tenor Martin Mitterrutzner.  Both singers’ performances are built upon sharply-defined portraits of their characters, organically derived from the text, and both gentlemen sing excellently.  Also singing with complete mastery of their music, bass-baritone Franz Mayer as der Ratsälteste (the Elder), baritone Dietrich Volle as der Wirt (the Innkeeper), mezzo-soprano Nina Tarandek as die Wirtstochter (the Innkeeper’s daughter), tenor Beau Gibson as der Schneider (the Tailor), alto Katharine Magiera as die Stallmagd (the Stable Maid), bass Thomas Charrois and baritone Garegin Hovsepian as the Gatekeepers, and mezzo-soprano Claudia Grunwald as a Lady all get inside their rôles, creating intriguing vignettes.  Chiara Bäuml, a member of the Kinderchor, is spirited and ardent as the prophetic young girl who warns the indignant people of Hellastadt that they have rejected their rightful king and queen by expelling the Gänsemagd and Königssohn.

Any opera with a prominent rôle for a witch, especially one who is alleged to be the lead character’s grandmother, inspires dread of tired, wobbly singing; a fear that too often proves warranted.  The Hexe in Hänsel und Gretel is arguably the more enjoyably quirky character, but her kinswoman in Königskinder is the more interesting creation, an enigmatic figure with links to Wagner’s Erda.  A singer’s opportunities to make a lasting impression in the part are limited to Act One, the Hexe having been unceremoniously burned at the stake at some time between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Three, when the Spielmann is found to have taken up residence in her vacated hut.  The singing of Swiss mezzo-soprano Julia Juon, an acclaimed Wagnerian, is delightfully free from wobble and the insipid cackling and vocal distortion that many singers seem to consider appropriate to the depiction of an operatic witch.  There are hints of an almost motherly concern in her otherwise menacing exchanges with the Gänsemagd that make Ms. Juon’s performance strangely alluring.  Her voice remains a sturdy, attractive instrument, and she brings unexpected depth to her winning characterization.

Russian baritone Nikolay Borchev sings handsomely as the Spielmann, alternately given in translation as the ‘Fiddler’ or the ‘Minstrel.’  He shares with his fellow fiddler in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet an inexplicable prescience that makes him a central player in the drama.  It is to the Spielmann that resolution of the opera is entrusted, reminiscent of the manner in which Wagner gave the final pages of Meistersinger to Hans Sachs.  Possessing a lyric voice of considerable beauty, Mr. Borchev delves into the complexities of the Spielmann’s rôle with freshness and unfailing musicality.  There is a charming suggestion that he is slightly awed by his own remarkable understanding, and the uniformly alert way in which Mr. Borchev’s Spielmann interacts with other characters contributes to the vibrancy of his portrayal of his rôle.  In the final scene, weariness, sorrow, and hope are all discernible in Mr. Borchev’s performance, and the eloquence of his singing increases the impact of the opera’s tragic dénouement.

The rôle of the Königssohn in the fully operatic version of Königskinder was created by Latvian-born tenor Herman Jadlowker, whose other rôles at the MET, in New York and on tour, included Gounod’s Faust (the rôle in which he made his début), Verdi’s Fenton, Puccini’s Rodolfo, Cavardossi, and Pinkerton, Mascagni’s Turiddu, and Wagner’s Lohengrin, and after his return to Europe he created the rôle of Bacchus in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.  Jadlowker’s recordings, most of which date from the 1910’s and 1920’s, reveal a lovely timbre and an astonishing mastery of bravura technique that was little explored during his tenure with the MET.  Beauty of timbre is also immediately apparent in the singing of German tenor Daniel Behle, whose performances of Mozart rôles have deservedly won praise.  Having given notice of his excellence in florid music in the DECCA recording of sacred music by Agostino Steffani, in which he sang alongside Cecilia Bartoli, Franco Fagioli, and other fine artists, his singing in this recording of Königskinder suggests that his voice is expanding beyond the quintessential lyricism heard in his earliest performances.  The Königssohn’s tessitura is troublesome, centering around the passaggio but requiring frequent, exposed excursions into the upper register.  There is greater freedom in Mr. Behle’s highest notes than in any of his other recordings to date.  His top B in his performance of Schubert’s ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’—seldom sung by tenors—on a disc of Schubert and Schumann Lieder was seemingly achieved more by will than by right of possession, but his upper register, up to top C, is magnificently bright and secure in this performance.  The ringing trueness of his intonation on high enhances the poetry of his conception of the Königssohn, and despite seemingly having been given a physical setting that undermines the character’s nobility Mr. Behle puts across dignity befitting a prince via vocal means alone.  The admirable forthrightness of his phrasing—aided in no small part by his native German diction—shapes a performance of great cumulative power, the pervasiveness of the Königssohn’s love for the Gänsemagd fervently conveyed.  Whether Mr. Behle’s vocal growth will ultimately permit him to explore heavier repertory as did Jadlowker and another of his great predecessors as the Königssohn, Peter Anders, is uncertain, but the histrionic completeness of his performance on this recording is indisputable.  Solely as a preservation of Mr. Behle’s extravagantly beautiful singing of a rôle that unexpectedly engages the best of his artistry, this Königskinder is invaluable.

In the recorded legacy of Königskinder, the singing of Helen Donath as the Gänsemagd in the EMI recording conducted by Heinz Wallberg has never been surpassed for limpid, ethereal beauty of tone and disarming characterization.  No higher praise could be offered to soprano Amanda Majeski than stating that, in this performance, she comes very near to equaling the standard set by her fellow American.  A performance of Hänsel und Gretel can survive a poor Gretel, as too many performances have exhibited, but Königskinder cannot be successful without an appealing Gänsemagd.  This performance has in Ms. Majeski a committed, compelling Gänsemagd whose voice shimmers with emotion in every phrase that she sings.  In Act One, the gentility with which Ms. Majeski expresses the Gänsemagd’s burgeoning love for the Königssohn is especially euphonious, the details of her vocal acting matched to the golden-toned tenderness of her singing.  In Acts Two and Three, Ms. Majeski’s performance radiates the joy of a young woman in love: so absolute is her Gänsemagd’s devotion to her prince that she occasionally sounds unnerved by it.  That her performance brims with youth and hope makes the eventual tragedy all the more portentous.  Though her diction is understandably less sharp than his, the interactions between Ms. Majeski and Mr. Behle are appropriately engrossing.  She matches his every well-sculpted phrase with elegantly-turned lines of her own, her voice combining in duet with Mr. Behle’s impeccably.  The lack of strain in Ms. Majeski’s traversal of the Gänsemagd’s tessitura is superb, particularly in her supremely confident voicing of exposed top notes, but it is the unaffected genuineness of her portrayal that is ultimately the most enjoyable aspect of her performance.  Fairy tales are meaningful only if they contain characters or situations that resonate with the reader, and the same logic applies to fairy-tale operas: without the soul that can only be animated by singers who care about their work, even the finest opera is little more than a lifeless body of notes.  Ms. Majeski’s Gänsemagd is the soul of this performance of Königskinder, and her singing gives Humperdinck’s music the potency to reach the heart of the listener.

Königskinder is the sort of opera that, under the right circumstances, can reward the curiosity of a listener with a surprisingly enriching experience of the joys of young love tempered by misunderstanding.  At its core, Königskinder is a tale of idealists pitted against a society that does not understand them and that they do not understand.  The tragedy of the Königssohn and his Gänsemagd is not so much in their deaths but in the failure of the society they were meant to lead to accept them.  This has perhaps never been more apparent than in this performance, in which it is clear from their first notes that the Gänsemagd and Königssohn are figures too beautiful for the ugly world they inhabit.  It is rare that a recording captures the essence of an opera as palpably as this Oehms Classics release recreates the strange world of Königskinder.  Then again, it is rarer still that musicians take a composer’s score not just into their hands but also into their hearts and make of notes and rests a journey through a world all too familiar to anyone who has known the fear and frustration of being on the outside, looking in.

Hermann Jadlowker (left) and Geraldine Farrar (right) in the world première of Engelbert Humperdinck's KÖNIGSKINDER at the Metropolitan Opera, 1910 [Photo by White Studio; © Metropolitan Opera] Herman Jadlowker (left) as the Königssohn and Geraldine Farrar (right) as the Gänsemagd in the world première of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Köningskinder at the Metropolitan Opera, 1910 [Photo by White Studio; © the Metropolitan Opera]