For a moment it is as if we have stepped back in time, because suddenly thereis conductor Marc Albrecht on the stage again, with his characteristicconducting style, the athletic way in which he bends his knees when he wantsthe orchestra to play softer, the approving thumb which he subtly raises to aninstrument group. Like he never left.
Marc Albrecht (Hannover, 1964) was chief conductor of Dutch National Opera andNedPhO between 2011 and 2020. He was hired after making an indelibleimpression with Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. He would conclude hisAmsterdam period with the same opera, before passing the baton to LorenzoViotti. But the first corona lockdown prevented that series of performances,so that Albrecht’s farewell was limited to one concert in the Concertgebouwwith thirty musicians who sat one and a half meters apart, for a handful oflisteners.
This week Albrecht is rehearsing Konigkinder by Engelbert Humperdinck. Thefairytale opera had its premiere in New York in 1910 and is now staged inAmsterdam under the direction of Christof Loy. It is the first time that thesingers and orchestra members come together. Once the orchestra is playing,Albrecht barely interrupts them. As the morning progresses he notices thingslike: „Not espresso there, rather contemplativo ”, but the orchestra hasto make do with its body language.
They play the first act. A goose girl lives with a witch (sung by Albrechthimself for the occasion; the singer is recovering from corona), but then aking’s son comes into her life dressed as a tramp. It’s a fairy tale, so theyfall in love. In the NedPhO dome, King’s son tenor Daniel Behle at firststands casually with his hands in the pockets of his gray hoody, but graduallyhis sultry love song is carried away by his role and eventually he even jumpswith delight. “It’s an endless legato!” Albrecht insists. The seduction game,in which they almost kiss but just barely, gets so high that the goose girl’sgarland breaks. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud’sheyday, everyone immediately knows what time it is. „We are now incrediblytogether, but also irrelangam ,” says Albrecht with a grin to his singers.”That was zauberhaft!”
When we sit in the remarkably unglamorous DNO conductor’s room after therehearsal day (“I think that little gray fridge has been there as long as I’vebeen here”), Albrecht smiles ominously at the comment that things seemed to begoing very well that morning. the rehearsals.
Or did I misread your body language?
“It kept getting better. NedPhO is used to reacting quickly, often withoutusing words, which is great.”
We speak a mix of English and German. Albrecht can read Dutch, but hisknowledge has declined too much for speaking – although he does occasionallythrow in a Dutch word: “To be back is really a present.”
“It’s like I never left. And that’s great, because we can easily pick up thethread again. It feels like yesterday.”
Can you notice the musical influence of your successor in the orchestra?
“There are a few new key players, they are very good. That’s the biggestdifference. Furthermore, the orchestra plays as flexible and beautiful asalways. Lorenzo Viotti tends to a slightly different repertoire, but I can’tsay that anything remarkable in the sound of the orchestra is changing, notyet, and I’m happy about that, haha.”
The journey you go through in ‘Köningskinder’ is extremely intense
You don’t want your estate to end as soon as you walk out the door.
“Ah, I think a new conductor can only add something to the spectrum. I’mreally looking forward to the fact that we Die Frau ohne Schatten ifeverything goes through, still going to perform.”
So this is not a belated goodbye, but a continuation of the collaboration?
“Sure, that was always the plan. I am also so happy to be back in the city, inAmsterdam, I was so happy here.”
The corona time has not fundamentally changed him, says Albrecht.“Artistically I’ve stayed the same, except that I taught myself to play theorgan in my first year. I am more pessimistic about the state of the culture.Since corona, we have realized that culture is low on the priority ladder. Andopera house programming has become much more cautious. That’s why I’m sograteful that we Konigkinder were allowed to do. The management has notasked us to switch to a crowd puller like la traviata.”
Konigkinder fits exactly in Albrecht’s late romantic street. “After all theWagners we loved doing, Humperdinck now feels like a kind of lost relative.”
No Wagner Epigone
Engelbert Humperdinck (1852-1921), the friendly good guy who assisted Wagnerwith parsifal and his son Siegfried gave music lessons, is less well knownin the Netherlands than in Germany. But even there, where are opera Hanseland Gretel is mandatory Christmas food every year, state Konigkinder not onthe radar. The work premiered in New York in 1910, and has been rarelyperformed since. Even Albrecht has never attended a performance.
“That’s part of the joy you saw this morning. It was the first time I heardthe whole thing with the singers, as it should sound. And the same goes forthe musicians, no one had ever played a note of this piece. Wonderful.”
Konigkinder is darker than Hansel and Gretel. The loving couple is notgranted a long and happy life together. The inhabitants of the village beyondare looking for a new ruler, but do not recognize the two as the idealmonarchs that they are. They are chased away, the witch is burned, the duodie. Other than at Hansel and Gretel the opera is also through-composed. Sothere are no recognizable sing-alongs in it.
Yet it is also a mystery to Albrecht why this work is rarely performed.”Nobody understands it. It really is something not to be missed, no one whohas delved deeper into it will ever forget it. The journey you are goingthrough is extremely intense. The radiant beginning, the beauty of nature, thepurity of the goose girl – it is like a soap bubble, a paradisiacal scene.Were it not that the witch is holding her captive, of course. And then we getto the disaster of the second act, where everything goes wrong. And then wesink further into the black darkness. That turn to darkness is a powerfultheatrical fact that few pieces offer. And then those children’s voices at theend, that’s so unique. No, I don’t understand why this isn’t a standard work.I loved it from the first time I saw the score.”
When is the implementation successful for you?
„If it is clear that Humperdinck was much more than a Wagner epigone. youbelong in Konigkinder certainly his influence, but in the coming days I willfocus on getting the real Humperdinck sound out of the score duringrehearsals.”
What is typical Humperdinck?
“I am convinced that there are layers in it that Wagner has never touched.Take the chamber music. It contains so many beautiful solos for cello, violaand violin that Wagner has never used in his operas. Humperdinck also tried toincorporate children’s songs in this symphonic opera, just like the German artsong. He really works like a wizard.”
It requires a subtle balancing act from the musicians, because the very factthat Humperdinck feels like a lost family member can be a pitfall. “It’s likea false friend. It is the wrong track to keep thinking ‘ah yes, I know this,we play it like Wagner’. No, beware! It has a special kind of counterpoint andthe way he handles leitmotifs is also very different. And compared to Wagnerwe hear more lyrical voices here; Humperdinck does not use a hero tenor or ahero baritone. That’s a remarkable difference. The purpose of the performancebecomes to make this sound like a style in its own right. Of course you alsohear Brahms in it, you hear Schubert, you hear Bach. But the piece as a wholeis unique. It really is a masterpiece.”
Konigkinder by Engelbert Humperdinck with the Ned. Philh. orchestra. 6 to22 Oct at Dutch National Opera Amsterdam. Inl: operaballet.nl