on the well-known fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm Humperdinck’s
opera was an instant success when it was premiered in Weimar
just before Christmas 1893. Within a year it had been performed
by at least seventy-two theatres and it has remained in the
standard repertoire in many opera houses. It is also well represented
in the record catalogues since Karajan’s 1953 recording with
Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the two children.
Hall in his liner-notes poses the question: is it an opera for
children or an opera for adults? The answer, of course, is that
it’s for both. Besides the story, both melodramatic, frightening
and burlesque, the lively rhythms and the catchy folk-like melodies
naturally appeal to children. I remember from my earliest school
years that in our songbook we had the dancing duet Brüderchen,
komm, tanz’ mit mir; in David Pountney’s English version,
used on this recording, it is Little brother dance with me.
There are many more songs and instrumental pieces that stick
after hearing them once or twice. It could be argued that the
Wagner-influenced orchestra with its lush harmonies and complexities
would be a too hard a nut to crack for the young ones. Although
some passages seem closer to Die Meistersinger than fairy-tale,
the next minute there is hilarious earthbound dancing and stamping
that should carry away anyone with a sense of joy.
the ever-reliable and inspirational Sir Charles Mackerras at
the helm and the Philharmonia Orchestra in ebullient mood, this
new version has a lot to recommend it from the start. The French
horns at the opening of the overture paint an atmospheric picture
of Romantic German nature. When Humperdinck wants to illustrate
rural happiness in dancing rhythms, Mackerras and the Philharmonia
oblige with jolly and alive conducting and playing. It is interesting
to note a motif applied to the Witches, which is quite similar
to the Giants’ theme in Wagner’s Ring. On the other hand
the Witches’ Ride has little in common with The Ride of the
Walküre. I have made a few comparisons with my preferred
versions of this opera, both stemming from the 1970s: John Pritchard
on CBS (later Sony) and Georg Solti on Decca. The former, recorded
in Cologne, is beautiful and has a marvellous cast but seems
too laid-back; the last ounce of drama is missing. Solti with
the Vienna Philharmonic on top form, never misses an opportunity
to stress a dramatic point but his reading is broader and in
the final analysis too pompous. It is as if Wagner was standing
just behind him in the Sofiensaal, whereas in Blackheath Halls
he was seated at a fair distance – just listening. Without having
gone into any depth in my comparisons I feel that Mackerras
has found a good middle course, without being blandly middle-of-the-road.
has a fine cast, but so have the other two. Pritchard’s children
are sung by Frederica von Stade and Ileana Cotrubas and both
are lovely – and well contrasted; Solti has Brigitte Fassbaender’s
highly individual Hansel and her dark tones are easy to separate
from the glittering Lucia Popp. Jennifer Larmore, who has recorded
Hansel before with Donald Runnicles, and Rebecca Evans at first
seemed different too with Ms Evans scaling down to a girlish
tone but in many places her tone is just as fruity and mezzo-ish
as Larmore’s. Without following the libretto I had problems
deciding who was singing. Both can also be rather vibrant when
high in the register up but both are also lively and involved.
When singing in unison, as the children do in several places,
there is a fine unanimity of vibrato and they blend very well
– for example in the duet at the end of act 2.
Plowright, today taking on dramatic mezzo-roles, is an intense
Mother and expresses both the hysterical and the deeply tragic
side of her character. Robert Hayward’s Wotan voice is rather
heavy but he makes a lively portrait of the Father and is a
fine counterpart to Plowright’s Mother.
lesser roles Diana Montague is an expressive Sandman and Sarah
Tynan’s Dew Fairy is as fresh as the dew she keeps in her bluebell.
Even the Cuckoo is credited in the cast list: Sarah Coppen.
greatest controversy in this opera is often how to create the
Witch. When the Pritchard recording was released, Elisabeth
Söderström was criticized for distorting her voice too much,
to make a caricature instead of a believable portrait. It is
a bit over the top, no doubt, but I enjoyed it greatly the first
time. I still think she is good but her portrayal may well lose
its charm when heard too often. Anny Schlemm for Solti is emphatic
and expressive but she also tends to distort the tone. Jane
Henschel is certainly a great singer and a great actor – I have
seen her both in the concert hall and on the opera stage. She
makes a vivid and dramatic Witch that becomes so much more terrifying
because she sounds more or less ‘normal’. She sings and acts
with the utmost conviction and almost steals the show – and
what a terrible shriek when she is being pushed into the oven!
I still have goose-pimples!
are some other realistic sound effects and the recording, as
expected from the Couzens team, first class in every respect
with wide dynamics. The booklet has numerous session photos
and David Pountney’s text is printed. I have compared his version
with the German original in only a couple of instances and the
two seem to be fairly close but his rhymes are certainly wittier
than in the original.
new version doesn’t necessarily outclass the competition but
it is worthy to stand beside my established favourites. Mackerras
steers a middle course that makes it an attractive alternative
for those who think Pritchard is too lax and Solti too pompous.