Reviewed: Awards 2006, Edward Greenfield

Fairy-tale opera offers much to enjoy in this welcome new live recording
Jonas Kaufmann King's Son ; Ofelia Sala Goose Girl ; Detlef Roth Fiddler ; Nora Gubisch Witch ; Jaco Huijpen Woodcutter ; Fabrice Mantegna Broom-maker ; Nelly Lawson Broom-maker's Daughter ; Henk Neven Landlord ; Mareen Knoth Landlord's Daughter ; Marc Dostert Tailor ; Diana Schmid Stable Maid ; Hans-Otto Weiss Senior Councillor Latvian Radio Choir; Montpellier National Orchestra; Opera Junior Children's Chorus/Armin Jordan Accord New CD 4769151 (165 minutes : DDD)
It is good to welcome a new recording of this seriously neglected opera. While it can never match the mastery of the fairy-tale Hänsel und Gretel, it offers much fine music. The plot is over-complicated and the piece rather long; and, tuneful though it is, it is short on the direct, folky melodies that make Hänsel so captivating. In a sad ending, the royal children of the title die in each other’s arms, poisoned by the cake cooked by the witch who has bewitched the Princess and forced her to become a goose girl. Equally, the King’s Son is disguised for much of the time as a beggar. Musically, though, there is much to enjoy, not least the duets and ensembles.

This new version has the advantage of being recorded live in concert performances at the Montpellier Festival, giving it dramatic tautness under the sympathetic direction of Armin Jordan. He draws incisive singing from the multiple choruses, not least the children’s, and the excellent cast is superbly led by Jonas Kaufmann, who sings the strenuous role of the King’s son with beauty and freedom.

Ofelia Sala as the Princess-Goose Girl has an attractively warm soprano with her vibrato well controlled, well contrasted with the mature-sounding Witch of Nora Gubisch. As the Fiddler, Detlef Roth sings one of the most freely lyrical passages in the opera near the beginning of Act 3 – a memorably simple folklike melody – in a finely controlled pianissimo; but his more outgoing solo leading up to that finds his voice so strained and uneven one would not recognise him as the same singer. Other characters strongly taken include Mareen Knoth as the Landlord’s Daughter, and the delightfully fresh-toned child soloist Nelly Lawson as the Broom-maker’s Daughter.

One big advantage of the new set over previous ones from Luisi (Calig, 2/97; Profil) and Wallberg (EMI, 8/89 – nla) is that the package offers a complete libretto and English translation. Against that there is the minor drawback that the number of tracks in each act – five only for Acts 1 and 3, four for Act 2 – is far too few for so complex a score. A good recommendation nonetheless.

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