For a moment it is as if we have stepped back in time, because suddenly there is conductor Marc Albrecht on the stage again, with his characteristic conducting style, the athletic way in which he bends his knees when he wants the orchestra to play softer, the approving thumb which he subtly raises to an instrument group. Like he never left.
Marc Albrecht (Hannover, 1964) was chief conductor of Dutch National Opera and NedPhO between 2011 and 2020. He was hired after making an indelible impression with Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. He would conclude his Amsterdam period with the same opera, before passing the baton to Lorenzo Viotti. But the first corona lockdown prevented that series of performances, so that Albrecht’s farewell was limited to one concert in the Concertgebouw with thirty musicians who sat one and a half meters apart, for a handful of listeners.
This week Albrecht is rehearsing Konigkinder by Engelbert Humperdinck. The fairytale opera had its premiere in New York in 1910 and is now staged in Amsterdam under the direction of Christof Loy. It is the first time that the singers and orchestra members come together. Once the orchestra is playing, Albrecht barely interrupts them. As the morning progresses he notices things like: „Not espresso there, rather contemplativo”, but the orchestra has to make do with its body language.
They play the first act. A goose girl lives with a witch (sung by Albrecht himself for the occasion; the singer is recovering from corona), but then a king’s son comes into her life dressed as a tramp. It’s a fairy tale, so they fall in love. In the NedPhO dome, King’s son tenor Daniel Behle at first stands casually with his hands in the pockets of his gray hoody, but gradually his sultry love song is carried away by his role and eventually he even jumps with 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’s garland breaks. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud’s heyday, everyone immediately knows what time it is. „We are now incredibly together, 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 the rehearsal day (“I think that little gray fridge has been there as long as I’ve been here”), Albrecht smiles ominously at the comment that things seemed to be going very well that morning. the rehearsals.
Or did I misread your body language?
“It kept getting better. NedPhO is used to reacting quickly, often without using words, which is great.”
We speak a mix of English and German. Albrecht can read Dutch, but his knowledge has declined too much for speaking – although he does occasionally throw 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 the thread 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 biggest difference. Furthermore, the orchestra plays as flexible and beautiful as always. Lorenzo Viotti tends to a slightly different repertoire, but I can’t say that anything remarkable in the sound of the orchestra is changing, not yet, 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’m really looking forward to the fact that we Die Frau ohne Schatten if everything 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, in Amsterdam, 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 the organ 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. And opera house programming has become much more cautious. That’s why I’m so grateful that we Konigkinder were allowed to do. The management has not asked us to switch to a crowd puller like la traviata.”
Konigkinder fits exactly in Albrecht’s late romantic street. “After all the Wagners 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 Wagner with parsifal and his son Siegfried gave music lessons, is less well known in the Netherlands than in Germany. But even there, where are opera Hansel and Gretel is mandatory Christmas food every year, state Konigkinder not on the radar. The work premiered in New York in 1910, and has been rarely performed since. Even Albrecht has never attended a performance.
“That’s part of the joy you saw this morning. It was the first time I heard the whole thing with the singers, as it should sound. And the same goes for the musicians, no one had ever played a note of this piece. Wonderful.”
Konigkinder is darker than Hansel and Gretel. The loving couple is not granted a long and happy life together. The inhabitants of the village beyond are looking for a new ruler, but do not recognize the two as the ideal monarchs that they are. They are chased away, the witch is burned, the duo die. Other than at Hansel and Gretel the opera is also through-composed. So there 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 who has delved deeper into it will ever forget it. The journey you are going through is extremely intense. The radiant beginning, the beauty of nature, the purity 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 get to the disaster of the second act, where everything goes wrong. And then we sink further into the black darkness. That turn to darkness is a powerful theatrical fact that few pieces offer. And then those children’s voices at the end, 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. you belong in Konigkinder certainly his influence, but in the coming days I will focus on getting the real Humperdinck sound out of the score during rehearsals.”
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, viola and violin that Wagner has never used in his operas. Humperdinck also tried to incorporate children’s songs in this symphonic opera, just like the German art song. He really works like a wizard.”
It requires a subtle balancing act from the musicians, because the very fact that Humperdinck feels like a lost family member can be a pitfall. “It’s like a 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 and the way he handles leitmotifs is also very different. And compared to Wagner we hear more lyrical voices here; Humperdinck does not use a hero tenor or a hero baritone. That’s a remarkable difference. The purpose of the performance becomes to make this sound like a style in its own right. Of course you also hear Brahms in it, you hear Schubert, you hear Bach. But the piece as a whole is unique. It really is a masterpiece.”
Read also this interview with Marc Albrecht at his retirement as chef of De Nat. Opera / NedPhO
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 6, 2022