There are several things militating against this lovely recording of Hans Pfitzner's Christmas fairy-tale opera, Das Christelflein. There is a previous recording with Helen Donath and Claes Ahnsjo that is presented better, complete with libretto, which is missing from this issue. That recording is out of print but can be found with a little persistence. Further, the story of the opera is an awkward mishmash of German nature worship and Christian observance of Christmas as both a religious and a family holiday. And, finally, there is more than a whiff of German nationalism that makes the opera a bit difficult to export to other countries.
On the plus side, though, is the marvelous musical performance on this 2CD set. Claus Peter Flor leads the Munich Radio Orchestra, the T'ölzer Knabenchor, and a cast of virtually unknown but musically excellent singers in a sparkling performance. There is a fairly detailed synopsis included in the booklet, but a libretto would have been a much better solution for those who don't understand German. Even more, there is considerable narration (and, at one point, melodrama [spoken text over a musical passage]), in German, between the musical numbers, done beautifully by Andrea Sokol, but of course it is so much gibberish for non-German-speaking listeners.
The music is rather along the lines of Humperdinck's H'änsel and Gretel in the use of Wagnerian harmonies and leitmotivs and like Humperdinck Pfitzner includes what sounds like folk-music. In fact the composer cleverly includes an altered quotation of 'O Tannenbaum' at a moment when one of the main characters, The Old Fir Tree, rallies the other trees in the forest to resist being cut down for use as Christmas trees.
The plot is rather mawkish with such things as a dying girl, Trautchen, being cured by the Christ Child, the Christmas Elf getting an immortal soul in Heaven and being allowed to return to Earth every Christmas and, further straining credibility in a sop to German nature worship, all the Christmas trees being granted eternal life by ascending into Heaven after they are cut down for the holiday.
This is terrific Pfitzner music, though, and indeed the ten-minute overture, the children's hymn and the angelic choruses are real treasures. One can, of course, program one's CD player so that it plays only the musical passages, which are really quite gorgeous. But that seems rather a shame as one misses much of what is going on.
2 CDs; TT=96:20