Times Literary Supplement, February 1992
Humperdinck, like other Wagnerites too perfect for their own good (such as Cornelius, Wolf and Pfitzner), wrote operas in the revered master's language and idiom. But this was not mere ventriloquism; each of them had his own individual voice and message, always worth a wider hearing. Humperdinck warmed to folk-tales about children, of which he never tired. But his audiences did; only Hänsel und Gretel, the first of his ten stage works, survives in regular repertory. Like its composer, it developed rather late in life and took its time to grow, from a simple song-sequence of 1890 by way of a Singspiel which was expanded (at Wolf's suggestion) into a full-scale opera.
Its successor, Königskinder (why not "Royal Children"?), to a text by Elsa Bernstein, was first published in 1897 as a Sprechgesang melodrama with linking dialogue, and then again extensively remodelled into the present three-act work, first performed in 1910. The many delierate motivic cross-references announce that this is a sad sequel. The original pair are now a couple; older, ostracized, and doomed to die, but still audibly the same small figures lost within the same vast sound-world of woods and windsa, where frail plaintive solos symbolize their isolation. Perhaps their original names were Engelbert and Adelheid, his beloved sister (the Hänsel librettist). In any guise, they simply embody the general human predicament.
But this ENO production, like its programme-book, strives for special complexity and significance. In this interest, the text is tampered with. Thuse the Goosegirl is vulgarity contrasted with two goosed girls dragged in for that purpose. The music's gospel of hope and compassion is perverted into hatred and doom. The chorus of children is not allowed to march off into the sunset and the future, as the libretto requires; they all fall down and die, one by one, as the production requires. First they are incited, in another gratuitous invention, to "abhor all those who conspired to reject" the hero and heroine. This explicitly includes theyr own parents and indeed the entire population of Act Two's allegorical Everytown, namely the Philistine tradesmen and officials (Woodcutter, Broommaker, Mayor) who loathe all aristocrats and artistic pretensions (Prince, Fiddler) and all inferiors or eccentrics (Goosegirl, Witch) with equal fervour. Here the German middle classes are depicted as a cloned throng of Nazi sots and thugs, with many an ominous allusion to the Hitlerzeit and the Holocaust. In my view, such treatment trivializes history and devalues art. In particular, it overwhelms the central characters, who all but disappear in the crowd-scenes. Thus their tragic finale is vitiated in advance; they go to their deaths before they have come to life.
There was some compensation in the magnificent stage spectacle. Given David Pountney's basic myth-interpretation, his English version of the text is daft and resourceful. From any viewpoint, Paul Pyant's lighting and Sue Blane's designs are consistently effective and often outstanding; the blonde blaze of sunlight that heralds the golden-haired heroine is especially memorable. So are the opening and closing scenes, contrasting a homely and hopeful springtime with a glittering Niagara of fatal snowfall. Humperdinck's pastel-coloured story-book is further illustrated by such diversions as pop-up geese. Other visual effects of movement and gesture are carefully timed to match the music and the action, with balletic precision.
The musical performances will surely improve. The talented principals (Cathryin Pope, Joseph Evans) seemed inhibited, either by first-night nerves or the Wagnerian dynamics. Despite some sensitive violin and other solos, the orchestra under Mark Elder's direction rarely sounded soft or silky enough for a fairy-tale tapestry. Many of the vocal and verbal strands were frayed into thin tone or indistinct diction, though Donald Adam's Woodcutter cameo was commendably clear, while Alan Opie's Fiddler was always effective and Sally Burgess's Witch often enchanting. The scoring, for all its range and complexity, should sound smaller and sweeter than Wagner's, and obediently accompany rather than seek to dominate; otherwise, Humperdinck's innocent childhood essence evaporates. And little enough was left of that after the all too adult anti-German sermonizing and other such Pountneyfictions.