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S & H Opera Review

Humperdinck, Hansel und Gretel Soloists; New London Children’s Choir; London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox. Barbican Hall, Friday November 30th, 2001 (CC)

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 ones.

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.

Colin Clarke

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