Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921) Hänsel and Gretel (1893) – Fairy tale opera in three acts
Libretto by Adelheid Wette
Peter, a broom maker – Adrian Eröd (baritone)
Gertrude, his wife – Janina Baechle (mezzo)
Hänsel – Daniela Sindram (mezzo)
Gretel – Ileana Tonca (soprano)
Witch – Michaela Schuster (mezzo)
Sandman & Dew Fairy – Annika Gerhards (soprano)
Children and students of the Vienna Opera School and Ballet Academy
Vienna Opera House Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
Stage Director – Adrian Noble
Set and Costume Designer – Anthony Ward
Lighting – Jean Kalman
Choreographer – Denni Sayers
Video Director – Agnes Meth
rec. live in November 2015, Vienna, Austria Region 0 EUROARTS 2072988 DVD [113:00]
This is theatre at its best. I noticed that much sensitivity has been put into the conception, blending music with on-stage action and story line with effective stage imagery. We rarely come across stagings of this opera outside Austria and Germany yet both story and music is well known throughout the Western world since written over 100 years ago. In 1987 a film directed by Talan was treated on traditional lines with reduced orchestration while a 2007 version by Frank also carries merit. Davis’s Royal Opera House production of 2008 moves to a higher plane but like this production tends to be soprano heavy.
Both in quality and representation this new DVD offers the magic of the theatre with a magnificent orchestra and is played traditionally. Victorian audiences who first saw the opera would have identified with this stage production. The music and singing is of excellent quality and matches the best available CD recordings by Solti, Karajan, Ticciati, and Mackerras.
This production may have a reduced cast of principals but they all carry subtleties of the opera’s story with charm. The casting and characterisation of parts has been sensitively considered —they look and act convincingly. But with a predominance of females in the cast the texture of vocal timbres is rather shallow. It is the tradition to have Hänsel played by a female but I would have liked to see Hänsel and Gretel sing with suppressed vibrato to enhance their youthful innocence and played by younger singers so the use of established names for such roles does not impress.
In this performance the acting and juvenile mannerisms of Hänsel and Gretel are convincing and their voices harmonise extremely well, particularly in the Act II prayer duet. The singing throughout is a delight. The mother and father figures are believable and the broom-making father brings into the opera a much-needed register of a male voice. Their house scene with the children is amusing and fun to watch.
One would have expected the witch to be darker character but her image was not helped by wearing a gaily decorated apron. The witch, both in looks and costume, is not particularly scary and so reduces some of the drama associated with her kitchen scene.
Thielemann conducts with verve and his orchestra responds well to the ebb and flow of Humperdinck’s score dynamics. The singing is superb throughout yet perhaps the orchestra is placed a shade too forward to balance ideally balance the vocal forces. Hänsel’s frequent gaze to the conductor is perhaps more noticeable than it could be as it tends to affect the sincerity of her excellent acting.
A Prologue of a Victorian Drawing Room scene is acted during the overture where the family is entertained by a magic lantern show. Much of the scenic design by Anthony Ward has been cleverly arranged round a circular framing that resembles the optics of the magic lantern used in this. A forest scene with wild tree branches providing a matching circular aperture that is used effectively to provide sunset, moon or sunrise effects. Tree silhouettes with sinister spikey branches indicate a sinister foreboding and the ever-changing backcloth with animated face to a Méliès moon is delightful. The finale to Act II is superbly achieved from the point in the libretto where a chorus of children enter to provide Hänsel & Gretel with choreographed activity. White balloons on poles match clouds of balloons, which first descend, then rise with the prologue boy and girl sitting in them.
A small symbolic Gingerbread house oddly perched on a table in the forest is the only awkward abstract element yet the witch’s cottage interior carries convincing realism when we enter it. Fritz Lang style touches to the house with skewed table and door with wizen steps set against a blood red cyclorama are equally effective. The statues of fossilised gingerbread children standing in the shadows are brought to life at the appropriate point in the music.
Something should be said about the video production with its creative camerawork under video director, Agnes Meth. There has been close association with Anthony Ward to optimise the good illusional effects of Meth’s montage.
The notes in English and German carry a full synopsis and interview with Andrew Noble and Christian Thielemann carries helpful and interesting detail about their work for the production. No note on the composer or original presentation of the opera is included.
Subtitle languages are English. German. French. Spanish. Japanese Korean. The soundtrack is available in PCM Stereo, DTS and Dolby 5.1. I preferred the PCM sound setting for playback.
This is an excellent production bringing together all aspects of good stage presentation that will be enjoyed by all the family. Raymond Walker