Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera Hansel
und Gretel is a fascinating piece which marries a variety of elements
into a whole that is frequently entertaining, occasionally disturbing
and always imaginative. What it requires most of all is a strong cast
and the attainment of this goal was the main reason for the success of
this particular performance.
The shadow of Wagner lurks over
this score, which partly explains why it cannot merely be seen as light
entertainment. The darker side of the fairy-tale world is present, adding
depth to the children’s tale: this is no opera exclusively for the little
Humperdinck was, after all, Wagner’s
musical assistant leading up to the first performances of Parsifal
in 1882 and so the Wagnerian brass chorales of the Overture should come
as no surprise. Richard Hickox was alive to the Wagnerian references
littered throughout the score, and seemed to want to underscore them.
Thus, the Mother’s final monologue of Act One Scene Two (after she has
sent Hansel and Gretel in to the wood to look for strawberries) saw
the excellent Anne Schwanewilms transforming from the children’s
mother into Kundry as she exclaimed, ‘Müde bin ich, müde zum
Sterben …’ (‘I am weary, weary to death’). Again, in Act Three Scene
Two the revelation of the Gingerbread House could almost be the children
discovering Monslavat, if the music at that point was to be believed;
Gretel’s question, ‘Wo bin ich? Ist es ein Traum?’ in Act Three Scene
One was, in mood, the direct equivalent of Parsifal’s stunned response
to the Flower Maidens of Klingsor’s magical kingdom.
Difficult questions of musical emphasis,
then, posed great interpretative challenges for Hickox and his team.
Concert performances of opera can
sometimes have a positive effect over the performers, in that if the
props of scenery and lighting effects are absent, the onus for successful
drama and characterisation falls squarely on the singers’ and orchestra’s
purely musical abilities. It is certainly true that what little space
was available was used to the best of effect, even to the extent of
Schwanelims in her role as Witch using her music stand as a broom!.
To make matters even more difficult for the performers, two parts were
doubled: Schwanewilms was both the Mother and the Witch and Susan
Gritton was both Sandman and Dew Fairy. It is a tribute to all
concerned that the course of the action emerged as crystal clear and
unfolded with a natural beauty.
The cast was largely excellent.
Pamela Helen Steven and Anne Schwanewilms emerged as the stars
of the evening, although that is perhaps a little unfair on the excellence
of the other singers. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Schwanewilms
in her Witch mode demonstrated tremendous versatility, taking the extended
solos perfectly in her stride and lavishing the utmost attention to
each and every aspect of her part. Pamela Helen Steven was a superb
Hansel: every single phrase was acted vocally to perfection and her
diction was consistently clear. The slight edge to her voice provided
the perfect foil to Laura Claycomb’s Gretel. Dietrich Henschel
confirmed his international stature with a sturdy account of the drunken
father. Finally, it was a pleasure to see and hear Susan Gritton on
top form as a delightful Sandman to end Act Two and (differently attired)
as the Dew Fairy to bring about the children’s awakening at the beginning
of Act Three. She almost stole the limelight, so enthralling was her
presence and how beautiful was her tone when she let it blossom. I have
long admired this singer’s work and it is a pleasure to be able to reiterate
this in print.
Hickox inspired the LSO to invoke
magic in nearly every bar, just as he encouraged the New London Children’s
Choir to excellence as the reawakened gingerbread children at the close
of the opera. Henschel’s confident and focussed Father brought the evening
to a memorable conclusion. On an evening when everyone contributed so
much to make it the success it was, it is almost with guilt that I reiterate
my assertion that it was Pamela Helen Steven and Anne Schwanewilms who
provided the icing on my particular gingerbread opera.