Years ago, before the popularity of reading groups, I used to have friends over for a “Literary Tea,” the purpose of which was to tell each other about our current favorite books and persuade each other to read them. Ironically, my modus operandi was the opposite of literary and consisted of my saying I LOVE THIS BOOK! I LOVE THIS BOOK! YOU MUST READ IT!
I feel that way again about my newest opera discovery, Königskinder (Royal Children, or literally King’s Children). I cannot tell a lie, it was this picture that got me interested:
I’d never heard of this opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, composer of Hänsel and Gretel, but who could resist a picture like that?
After months of waiting and rumors (this performance was filmed in 2010) the DVD of Zürich Opera’s production was released in October. Confused by the few clips I saw on YouTube and a puzzling synopsis found online, I popped the blu-ray into my player not knowing what to expect, turned on the English subtitles, and had my tissues at the ready.
The music reminded me of Wagner and R Strauss, with beautiful themes woven throughout. There were a few lyric arias but mostly the characters sang continuous conversations or sometimes soliloquies/reveries. The words and the music were so perfectly intertwined, and whether it was the cause or the result of this, the acting was very good. Luscious music for the woodwinds. The production emphasized the sly humor and subversive satire in the libretto. My sentimental heart was genuinely touched by the plight of the outcast Königskinder (royal children) and the King’s Son’s anguish, far more than I ever have been by, say, Parsifal’s.
Königskinder premiered at the Met in 1910 with a “medieval fairy tale” setting laid out in great detail by the composer, who was in New York for the first production.
(Coverage of the Met Opera in the New York Times from 1910 is a treasure chest of gems like this!)
Zürich Opera has done a terrific job with an updated production that keeps many of the stage instructions intact, just in a different setting. This is particularly effective in Act 2, set in the bourgeois town of Hellabrunn.
Humperdinck called this a fairy tale opera (always hoping to repeat the success of Hänsel and Gretel) but I see it as more of an adult fable or parable. A King’s Son (who must learn to be a king) and a Goose Girl (who must break out of her childish isolation) are in love but must see beyond the difference in their social status; a bourgeois town has grown fat and greedy and wants to have a king they can control, but are blind to the King and Queen that have been sent to them; and the only ones who see the true nobility of both King’s Son and Goose Girl are the children of the town and the Fiddler (a sort of combination Pied Piper and Trickster). Or in simplistic terms, outsiders (the Königskinder, the Fiddler, the Witch, and the children) are crushed by society. As the booklet with this CD recording says “From the fairytale opera to symbolic naturalism.” That article also usefully notes that Act 1 is the fairy tale, Act 2 is the medieval tale, and Act 3 the tragic-realistic love.
The Zürich production is contemporary. When the curtain rises, we see the interior of a school gym where all the action takes place. It’s almost as if a group of schoolchildren are telling the story (which makes sense when you get to the end!). The Witch’s hut is a door on one side, in front of which is a sink (the spring); the magical forest is represented by pot plants growing under artificial light; the linden tree is a botanical poster on the back wall. The Goose Girl is trying to learn something from a book, but not succeeding as she is daydreaming, surrounded by her geese (cardboard cutouts on sticks brought in by schoolchildren during the overture–I’m guessing the premiere in New York may have been the first and only production to use live geese!).
The Witch–the Goose Girl’s ‘grandmother’, with wine-red henna’d hair, hipster specs, and a white lab coat–complains about the girl’s inability to learn the magic she’s trying to teach her and commands her to make a loaf of bread. When she’s finished, the Goose Girl blesses the bread, saying “may whoever eats this see his greatest wish come true” (same magic music that is associated with the Witch).
The Witch then gleefully tells her that she’s actually made a poisoned loaf that will never get old or dry out and will never lose its evil power: “whoever eats even half will die!” She hides the loaf in her hut.
After the Witch heads off to the town of Hellabrunn, the Goose Girl bemoans her lonely fate–the operatic Bat-signal that someone will turn up soon, and sure enough the King’s Son climbs in through the window (comes down from the mountains). He’s left his kingdom in secret because he’s tired of his golden cage and wants to see the world.
In true fairy tale fashion, King’s Son and Goose Girl fall in love at first sight, although the prince warns her that he will ‘torment her with wrath and love’ (which he does). She replies that she is good for him (and she is).
She pledges her eternal love, but as they try to leave the enchanted wood, the Goose Girl can go no farther than the edge of the forest. The King’s Son, too young and proud to understand, abandons her in frustration and anger.
The Witch returns, and as she berates the Goose Girl for having spoken to a man, we hear the Fiddler approaching, followed by a Woodcutter (Holzhacker) and a Broom-maker (Besenbinder–it’s useful to know that Besen means broom for some of the visual humor, although this production uses brushes instead–and if you’ve ever seen a Mac vs PC ad you’ll recognize the Broom-maker). As the Witch says: “Has this magic forest turned into a fairground today?”
The burghers of Hellabrunn have sent the three of them to ask the Witch to tell them where to find a new King. After sarcastically pointing out that asking for a King is like asking for chains, the Witch proclaims that the new King of Hellabrunn will be the first person to pass through the town gates at the stroke of noon the next day.
The Woodcutter and Broom-maker return to Hellabrunn with this good news. The Fiddler, who has seen the Goose Girl peeking out the door, remains behind and demands to see her. When she explains that the King’s Son was there and asked her to marry him, but she was not worthy and was held back by the magic of the wood, the Fiddler forces the Witch to tell the Goose Girl’s true story: her father, the Hangman’s assistant, was himself hanged for murdering her mother’s noble attacker; her mother was the Hangman’s daughter. [I’ll have more to say about this odd story, the root of my confusion, in pt 2!]
The Fiddler tells the Goose Girl that her parents’ nobility of spirit and great love were the equal of any king’s noble birth, and that she is free to go, but she must have the courage to do so herself. The Witch, however, curses her: “Your bridal bed will be a shroud!”
The Goose Girl prays to her father and mother and gains the courage to break free from the Witch. The Goose Girl and Fiddler leave for Hellabrunn.
The music in Act 1 introduces each character with a distinctive theme. The Witch’s music, all woodwinds, is especially rich, but all the themes are memorable. This opera was originally written as a melodrama with incidental music, with the dialogue spoken by actors on pitch. Here’s a sample from the melodrama:
And here’s how it looks, put to music in the opera:
There’s something about the way the speech flows in the singing–and I wonder if it has to do with the fact that Humperdinck had previously written the whole thing in this sprechstimme format–that is amazing. Or maybe it’s just that I understand German and not so much French or Italian in opera, but when I listen to this, the way the words and the music work together is truly wonderful. (Or maybe it’s the singers…?)
There is no break between Acts 1 and 2 in this production and during the overture to Act 2 the gym is very cleverly (and amusingly) converted into the town square of Hellabrunn. The Innkeeper is the owner of the “Hella Snack” shop (complete with those little European ice-cream flags and paper crowns, of course!) with King-burger specials for the great day. The genius of this is that despite the update, the libretto works perfectly with the modern setting.
The music in Act 2 has been described as “Meistersinger”-ish (not by me since I only know the overture of that opera). The act is introduced by a jaunty march and dance that propel the action along right through the first scene. This music also provides a great contrast to the dreamy reveries sung by the King’s Son, introduced by a strikingly beautiful string theme that I always think of as the Linden Tree theme. This production uses the time-honored effect of freezing everyone and cutting the lights onstage, with only a spotlight on the King’s Son for these soliloquies–that always works for me.
The King’s Son arrives in Hellabrunn and is tempted by the Innkeeper’s Daughter, but he rebuffs her and realizes he still loves the Goose Girl. He also realizes that although he was born to be a king, he must learn to serve in order to become a true king. (In contrast to the Witch’s disparagement of kings, the King’s son has two great moments in the opera when he sings of what kingship should mean.)
He asks the Innkeeper for a job as a groom, but is given the job of swineherd. So he dons a Hella-Snack crown and apron and begins cleaning up after the piggish citizens of Hellabrunn.
The town gathers, the clock strikes twelve (an amazing percussive low sound from I’m guessing all the ‘low’ instruments, not a bright bell or gong), the King’s Son has one more gorgeous reverie, and the Goose Girl enters through the gates wearing the royal crown he gave her. The townsfolk, of course, are blind to their true nobility and drive the Königskinder and the Fiddler out of town. The writing for the chorus in Act 2 is terrific, almost fugue-like!
Only the daughter of the Broom-maker is left behind, sobbing that they were the true King and Queen.
When the curtain rises on Act 3, it is winter and we see the destruction of Hellabrunn as backdrop for the set from Act 1. The windows are all broken and the benches and other furnishings wrecked. The Fiddler (who has been living in the Witch’s hut) appears, limping and blinded, and we learn that the upright citizens of Hellabrunn burned the Witch at the stake for her ‘false prophecy’ and tortured the Fiddler. But things have not gone well for the Hellabrunners since they drove away the Königskinder: their children refuse to obey, refuse to speak to their parents, and blame the adults for the misery of the town. The Broom-maker and Woodcutter have come to see if the Fiddler knows where the Königskinder may be found, and the children have followed to beg the Fiddler to help them find the King and Queen.
The Woodcutter and Broom-maker go inside to investigate the Witch’s hut, while the Fiddler, who has told the children he will help them find the Königskinder when spring arrives, goes off.
Introduced by the Sad Oboes of Doom (I must have a bit of dust in my eye) the King’s Son and Goose Girl climb down from the window just as the King’s Son did in the first act–they’ve been wandering lost in the very mountains that the King’s Son arrived from in the summer. This is where I was so taken with the cleverness of the staging: the Goose Girl climbs into the King’s Son’s arms for that striking picture–no need to deadlift your soprano!
They are weak, starving, and frozen when they collapse in front of the hut where they first met. In anguished outbursts the King’s Son bitterly regrets his light-hearted running away, and his complete inability to find the path back home “zum Mutterherzen, zur Vaterhand.” Instead of a goofball who learns fear from seeing a woman for the first time (Siegfried I’m looking at you) the King’s Son learns fear when he sees his beloved in danger and is helpless to protect her. He approaches the Witch’s hut and begs for bread, but the Woodcutter and Broom-maker, still completely blind to who he is, refuse bread or shelter.
The Goose Girl, so good for him, sings joyfully of their life in the mountains, before winter came, with the words “Sunlight or moonlight, we didn’t care…we sat and sang!”
She then sings for the first time “Der Tod kann nicht kommen – ich liebe dich.” “Death cannot come: I love you.” The first time, sung in joy. But as her song continues, she grows weaker, the images change from summer joy to winter pain and brokenness. She sings again, “Death cannot come”…but she sees Death creeping behind her.
The King’s Son realizes that they still have the royal crown, so in his last noble action he breaks the crown in two and knocks again on the door of the hut. He offers them the pieces and the Woodcutter (still blind to their true identity, not even recognizing a crown) throws him a loaf found in the hut–the poisoned bread.
They share it, and both the blessing and the curse come to pass: in shimmering song they dream of returning to the King’s Son’s land and throne, where he will present the Goose Girl to all as his Queen. But…they are both strangely weary and must sleep. The King’s Son sings as he did in Act 1, “Laß mich dich küssen und stille sein” “Let me kiss you in silence” his last words…
And as the Goose Girl watches him die, she sings for the last time “Death cannot come: I love you” and joins him in death.
Well, just as in Romeo and Juliet, someone has to come along to tell the tale. The Fiddler and the children return and discover the bodies of the King’s Son and the Goose Girl. The Fiddler has one last song, the royal couple will be buried high in the mountains, finally sharing a royal bed, and the children will sing and recite the Fiddler’s tale of the Königskinder . (Therefore setting in a school gym and the actions of the children beyond what’s called for in the libretto?)
Humperdinck, Puccini-like, presses ALL THE EMOTIONAL BUTTONS for me with his music for Königskinder.