One could almost have forgotten that it’s already two years since Marc Albrecht left Amsterdam and his position of Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Dutch National Opera. His departure during the pandemic was discreet, without public fanfare. Last Thursday, he made a warmly-received return to his former house with Engelbert Humperdinck’s rarely performed second opera, Königskinder.

Olga Kulchynska (Goose Girl) and Daniel Behle (King's Son)
© Dutch National Opera | Monika Rittershaus

Composed 17 years after Hänsel und Gretel, whose instant popularity had earned Humperdinck worldwide fame, Königskinder (The King’s Children) seemed initially destined to comparable success. Its premiere in 1910 was at the Metropolitan Opera, with no less than star soprano Geraldine Farrar singing the role of the Goose Girl. She had even trained real life geese for the occasion. It was received enthusiastically. However, fame never materialised and performances of this work remain a rarity. In the Netherlands, for instance, it had never been performed since its Amsterdam premiere 110 years ago.

Olga Kulchynska (Goose Girl) and Doris Soffel (Witch)
© Dutch National Opera | Monika Rittershaus

Perhaps a reason for its unpopularity can be found in the profound pessimism of its dark tale. Lost in a forest on his quest for knowledge, the King’s Son meets the Goose Girl, who lives a secluded life with the Witch, away from other people. The two fall instantaneously in love, in spite of their differences in social standing: they know that nobility is to be found in one’s heart rather than one’s ancestry. The people of Hellastadt think differently however; when the young couple arrives in the city in their lowly apparel, they are mocked and shouted at, in spite of the Fiddler’s appeal to recognise them as the King’s Children who, according to the Witch’s prophecy, are meant to rule over the city. They are ruthlessly chased out of the city by the mob and spend months wandering in the forest before meeting a tragic death. The inhumanity of the mob is tragically prescient of the librettist’s own real life story, as Elsa Bernstein-Porges would be deported to Theresienstadt during World War 2. 

Daniel Behle (King's Son) and Olga Kulchynska (Goose Girl)
© Dutch National Opera | Monika Rittershaus

A major flaw in the libretto is a gap of several months in the storyline between Act 2 and 3, during which important events happen which are never mentioned in the opera. Director Christof Loy ingenuously solves this problem by adding a still black-and-white film which is projected during the orchestral prelude to Act 3. It is a visually stylish affair, as is, unsurprisingly for this director, the rest of the staging. The set imagined by Johannes Leiacker is dominated by a giant lime tree that stands just right of centre. It shelters the budding love of the young couple in Act 1 and oversees the town’s activity in Act 2, before shedding its leaves in the winter of Act 3. It stands in front of an immaculately white background in which a single door opens onto the passage between the forest and the city or vice-versa. Costumes designed by Barbara Drosihn have a stylised turn-of-last-century feel and come in all monochromic shades of cream and beige, with only subtle splashes of colour. The crowd scenes are elegantly choreographed. As the people of Hellastadt, the Chorus of Dutch National Opera, rehearsed for the first time by their new artistic leader Edward Ananian-Cooper and reinforced by the children of the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor, gave a strong performance.

Josef Wagner (Fiddler)
© Dutch National Opera | Monika Rittershaus

It is in its Personenregie that Loy’s direction is at its most impactful, and here he benefits from a complete cast who all act as well as they sing. With its youthful timbre yet the ability to cut through orchestral outbursts, Daniel Behle’s tenor sounded ideal as the King’s Son and Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska’s warm and bright lyric instrument made for the most endearing Goose Girl. Their final scene, as they drift to their death, was a beautiful moment charged with emotion. Doris Soffel’s Witch had more than one side to her character and one understood that by keeping the Goose Girl captive, she also tried to protect her from the mob. As the Fiddler, baritone Josef Wagner boasted a handsome timbre. The Fiddler is actually clearly the fourth main character in the story, intervening with the last words after the young couple dies. The music he sings is reminiscent of Lieder, at times only quietly accompanied by strings. 

Königskinder, final scele
© Dutch National Opera | Monika Rittershaus

It is in more intimate moments like these that Humperdinck’s orchestral music also audibly finds its own character and diverts from the influence of his mentor, Richard Wagner. Back in the pit with his trusted Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Albrecht conducted superbly, highlighting the chamber-like details of the score and pinpointing the many string solos, some played with great virtuosity on the stage by violinist Camille Joubert, the orchestra’s second concert master. Discovering this masterpiece in this, albeit flawed, production felt very special.