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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 20, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 21
Glorious music; terrible staging
Arts & Entertainment
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Glorious music; terrible staging

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK'S
KÖNIGSKINDER
ZÜRICH OPERA
Blu-ray DVD


The great appeal of the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann led me to order this Blu-ray of Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Königskinder (the king's son), in which he plays the title role. Humperdinck, a devout Wagner pupil and professional associate, was a master of orchestration as well as gifted in writing for the voice. Although this opera has few if any memorable 'melodies,' it satisfies mightily in musical interest and appeal. Fortunately, this production from the Zürich Opera (a 2010 live performance) meets the musical demands with an excellent cast and a superb conductor and orchestra. Technically the Blu-ray disc could hardly be better, both in sound and picture.

The staging, however, updates and seriously confuses the storytelling. I watched the whole opera with a group of friends, all of whom enjoyed it but were left with many questions. Happily, an excellent booklet accompanies the disc. The essay about the composer provides welcome perspective about the libretto as well as Humperdinck's life. When I read the synopsis AFTER seeing the opera, I thought, 'Oh, THAT'S what the story was about!' The story is not a bad one; its literary merits might even be apparent in a production that knew how to tell a tale clearly.

There's nothing wrong with being left with questions after a performance, but this production went so far in imposing the director's ideas, no matter how contrary to the libretto, that nearly everything served to confuse and pervert the storytelling. I could fill this review with examples. The first scenes replace the written enchanted forest with many pots of marijuana plants, set inside a large gymnasium-like structure. (The witch sells a bag of weed to a customer.) The female lead sings about a beloved plant that refuses to bloom, all the while caressing this plant and its many flowers!? A later scene with the villagers takes place in the same gym but apparently outside a Burger King where the prince is scrubbing floors. Some single-set productions are creative and satisfying; this one looks cheap and detracts from every scene.

But I nonetheless recommend this disc for the superb music making and for the chance to see an opera that is new to almost all of us. (Just be sure to read the synopsis before you watch!) Foremost of its virtues is the glorious music of Humperdinck. Yes, his language is almost identical to Wagner's, especially in his consummate skill in orchestration. There is something interesting and exciting going on in the orchestra at every moment. And conductor Ingo Metzmacher is clearly the master of it all, drawing glorious sounds from the superb Zürich Opera Orchestra. (He also is the perfect image of a romantic conductor.) Especially exciting are the horns. Even with the absence of memorable tunes, the richness of tone and colors makes this a score to cherish.

Next, the singing could hardly be better. Any deficiency in beauty of tone that soprano Isabel Rey might offer, she more than makes up for in some extremely nuanced acting. What a pleasure to see her as this delightful young girl after having just watched her utterly boring performance in a recently reviewed Pelléas et Mélisande. All the smaller parts are well sung and acted, especially the Fiddler, Swiss-born bass-baritone Oliver Widmer, whose top notes were so well negotiated that one might have thought only a tenor could do so well.

Did Jonas Kaufmann live up to expectations? You bet! This one-of-a-kind, baritonal tenor is in prime voice and acts with his usual intelligence and appeal. He is not dressed or made up to be quite as knock-out gorgeous as in his videos of Carmen, Lohengrin, or Werther, but still one could hardly find a more appealing tenor on today's stages. Kaufmann and the orchestra together make this disc well worth the price of admission. (It is, I believe, the only video of this opera available anywhere.)

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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