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The current fad for unearthing forgotten operas has turned up some duds. Justly neglected flops are diligently dusted and polished so that they can flop again.

But every now and then, something wonderful is disinterred. And then it stays. Humperdinck’s Königskinder, one of the latter kind, is enjoying a comeback.

Zurich’s new staging comes just two years after lavish productions in Montpellier and Munich, which themselves were preceded by a modest but definitive premiere in Cottbus. Gera will follow suit next month.

Humperdinck must be cheering in his grave. During his lifetime this disciple of Wagner was blighted by the outrageous success of his children’s opera Hänsel und Gretel. Even today, it is one of the world’s most-performed operas, quite eclipsing Humperdinck’s other efforts. But Humperdinck always had more serious things in mind.

Königskinder, which went down very well at its 1910 New York premiere, is a weird and wonderful hybrid of fairytale and tragedy. Its librettist, “Ernst Rosmer”, was actually Elsa Bernstein, Jewish daughter of Wagner’s choirmaster, Heinrich Porges. Though she wrote other acclaimed plays and poems, it was chiefly the text of Königskinder that saved her from transportation to Auschwitz when she was later locked up in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She had become famous enough to survive.

At a time when the opera world was struggling to define itself beyond Wagner, the modern fairytale was a popular genre. Bernstein’s libretto uses folkloric elements to tell a contemporary tale. The King’s son has disguised himself as a commoner in order to prove himself truly worthy of his crown. He falls in love with the goose-girl, who is ensnared by an evil witch. By the time the minstrel has helped her to escape, the King has died and the prince is working as a swineherd in the village.

The witch predicts that the new King will march into the town at noon the next day. Noon strikes, and the swineherd appears with the goose-girl. The townsfolk refuse to recognise the pair. The witch is murdered, the minstrel beaten, and the people fall into a state of war and anarchy. Only the children believe in the young royal pair. Together with the minstrel, they set out to find them. Too late; the king’s son and the goose-girl, starving and freezing, have sold their golden crown in return for the loaf of poisoned bread, which the witch once made the goose-girl bake. They eat it and die.

Cottbus intendant Martin Schüler astutely identified Königskinder, as not “a” German fairytale, but “the” German fairytale. This is a society that falls victim to its own brutality. It is their children, today’s “1968 generation”, who call their parents to account – though not before a great deal of damage has been done. Somehow, Bernstein had seen the future.

Humperdinck’s music follows the libretto’s bizarre course, from innocent fairytale hop-sa-sa to a Liebestod worthy of Tristan und Isolde. Its blend of ingenuous melody with late romanticism and its trajectory from purity through scorching pain to transcendent acceptance make it irresistibly compelling listening.

Zurich has wisely spared no expense to bring Königskinder even more firmly back into the repertoire. Jens-Daniel Herzog’s staging is a simple but eloquent updating, devoid of political point-scoring but starkly effective. Mathis Neidhardt’s single-room set develops from classroom (the witch is a drug-peddling chemistry teacher) through village hall to bombed-out ruin. Herzog concentrates his efforts on vivid portraits of individual characters, and the results are strong.

Jonas Kaufmann, in spite of indisposition, is the fairytale prince of most opera-goers’ dreams, young, reckless, beautiful, with charisma to spare and a voice that combines lyricism and heroic heights with little sign of strain. His goose-girl Isabel Rey errs on the lighter side of dramatic soprano, which is fair enough. She is utterly convincing as the innocent child who grows through suffering into a passionate and anguished woman. The smaller roles are well cast, from Oliver Widmer’s warm-toned minstrel to Liliana Nikiteanu’s darkly scheming witch.

In the pit, Ingo Metzmacher puts his case for the open chief conductor position, with a strong sense of structure and clear textures. He pitches the piece midway between Richard Strauss and Lorzing, opting neither for romantic opulence nor for analytical astringency, and there are times when a little more decisive character would help.

In all, though, this is a dramatically compelling evening full of glorious music.
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