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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Opera Review: Prince (and Princess) Humperdinck!

dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Delights with Königskinder
Königskinder is composer Engelbert Humperdinck's follow-up to Hansel und Gretel. It received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 28, 1910, 100 years ago. Following a run of performances in Berlin, it sank into obscurity. On Tuesday night, the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble made a good case for a full-scale revival.

Geraldine Ferrar as the Goose Girl in Königskinder.
Photo © 1910 The Metropolitan Opera Archive

The company marked the centennial with one performance, an abridged version that still allowed the glories of this neglected work to shine through. Ironically, the performance, at the Gerald Lynch Theater, (part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) took place just down the street from the Met.

Like Hansel, this is a fairy-tale, or Märschenoper. However, the royal children in question, a young prince and a strange "Goose Girl" (raised, of course by an evil witch) meet with a dark, bitter fate. Rejected by the common people, they flee the city and nearly starve to death in the woods, before choosing a Wagnerian end: eating the old witch's poisoned bread. The last act is heart-breaking, as the lovers expire and pass into legend.

Under the direction of Christopher Fecteau, the opera was cut to 90 minutes from the original score's two and a half hours, and played by a seven-piece chamber ensemble. Cleverly, the orchestration incorporated a harmonium (a keyboard instrument that uses wind and reeds) to supplement the lack of woodwinds and strings. Mr. Fecteau conducted his small forces as if they were a big Wagnerian band, drawing sweep and power from his little group.

The innovative orchestration supported a strong, young cast. Soprano Katherine Wellinger was compelling as the Goose Girl, soaring through her vocal with a fine lyric instrument. This part is about the same weight as a 'light' Wagner heroine: Elisabeth, Elsa or Eva. Ms. Wellinger's voice is right in that fach, and she was well-suited to Humperdinck's innovative melidic writing. The finest moment came at the fulcrum of the work in Act II: the meeting at the city gates when the children recognize each other. It was like the end of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but without the psychodrama.

Caleb Stokes was a strong presence as the prince, who poses as a beggar for reasons known only to the author of the tale. He pushed his bright-toned instrument hard in the first two acts amnd expressed passion, resignation and loss in the final scene. The Witch was acted by Joanna Rice. But the mezzo was vocally indisposed, and soprano Jennifer Moore sang the role from the pit. She did a great job in that difficult circumstance. Baritone Willam Amory was a compelling presence as the Minstrel, and his final eulogy brought the opera to a satisfying close.

In the program materials supplied to the audience, Mr. Fecteau has expressed his wish to perform a full version of Königskinder, with the full orchestration and no cuts to the three-act work. This performance would be a worthy enterprise. (If he pulls it off, I'll be first in line to see it.) This is an important, underrated opera. Its 100-year absence from the stages of New York City is nothing less than criminal neglect.

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