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DVD: Crotchet

Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854–1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1893)
Ludmil Kuntschew (baritone) – Peter; The Witch; Alexandra Petersamer (mezzo) – Gertrud; Sabine Noack (mezzo) – Hänsel; Cornelia Marschall (soprano) – Gretel; Viktorija Kaminskaite (soprano) – Sandman; Dewman
Children’s Chorus and supernumeraries of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau
Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau/Markus L. Frank
Directed by Johannes Felsenstein; Set and Costume Design: Stefan Rieckhoff; Dramaturgy: Susanne Schulz
Directed for Television and Video by Brooks Riley
rec. live at the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau in 2007
Sound format PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Picture format 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101321 [98:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Even before the opera begins we are shown pictures of starving children as backdrop to the stills of the main characters. During the overture there is footage, supposedly, around WW1, of mass scenes and close-ups of more starving children. Later still comes archive material from WW2 and even the Vietnam War. The focus is clearly on children in exposed situations.
Hänsel und Gretel as a socio-critical opera – does it seem strange? No, maintains Susanne Schulz, principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau in an essay in the booklet for this issue. Fairytales may always have been permeated with escapism, reflecting dreams rather than reality, but Hänsel und Gretel, especially in Ludwig Bechstein’s version, which was Humperdinck’s source for his opera, firmly focuses on the social misery of millions of people during the 19th century. Hunger is the central theme in the first act and the triggering factor for the children’s decision to go out into the woods. The realism in the first act, where child labour is another ingredient, is striking and stands in sharp relief from the following scenes, which should be seen more as the children’s dream visions. They do indeed dream in act II but in this production it seems that the whole opera, apart from the first act is a dream.
When the children go to sleep in the wood they are nominally still in their home, the fragments of the broken pot still on the floor and they say their evening prayers in front of their own beds. During the dream pantomime a row of children – even a Lucia with candles in her hair! – walk in a procession and line up at the back of the stage, where a big decorated Christmas tree is erected. When Hänsel and Gretel went to sleep before the pantomime they were dressed in their simple every-day clothes; when they wake up the next morning they are beautifully dressed. They find the gingerbread house and are being watched from above by their parents, who had been there in the wood/the family’s kitchen even earlier to tuck them up in their beds. Now the father ‘disguises’ himself by putting a cloth over his head and comes down to the children. But it isn’t really he who is the Witch, it’s an ugly doll that he lends his voice to and Hänsel and Gretel also have dolls, symbolizing themselves. It is a kind of puppet theatre within the opera. Consequently at the end of this scene it is the Witch Doll that is thrown into the fireplace.
Making a dream opera of a fairytale opera may seem natural from one point of view – but aren’t the elements of dream present already? In the first act Gertrud, the mother, is as usual an evil person – but probably not just to be evil: the financial situation for the family is strained to say the least, not being improved by Peter’s, the father’s, heavy drinking. In the dream they are still frightened of Peter, but they seem to get confidence in him in time and Gertrud, who is in the background, looks at the children with warmth. At the end there is a really jolly family reunion and all the social problems seem solved. It is a fairytale and a dream, but isn’t this too uncomplicated? Maybe not – a dream can also be a vision but it is well childish if the problems are to be solved by throwing the Witch in the fireplace. Still – the historical, and not so historical, pictures aroused intrinsically strong feelings but then they vanish almost as soon as the topic is introduced.
Such reservations apart – and who says that opera’s most important mission is to give solutions to problems politicians have failed to solve – this is a thought-provoking, different and engaging performance. Johannes Felsenstein and his ensemble in Dessau are clearly making engaging productions and the ensemble is obviously deeply involved. This is music theatre that can only be achieved with a group of singers who get time to creep into their roles and interact. Especially the rapport between Sabine Noack’s Hänsel and Cornelia Marschall’s Gretel is truly congenial. One believes in them. Both are also excellent singers. Ludmil Kuntschew is more of a character-singer, but that is what a good ‘Witch’ should be and with his flexible face he makes the most of his opportunities. Alexandra Petersamer, whom I recently saw as a splendid Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde from Dessau, has a classy voice, though as Gertrud she has few opportunities to really show that. However, she acted convincingly, first and foremost in the first act. I hope to hear more of the glittering soprano Viktoria Kaminskaite, whose Sandman and Dewman, were more or less the same character, which they probably are in the real fairy-world. The children’s chorus were good and Markus L. Frank led a well-paced performance. I have always found the overture to this opera with its Wagnerian sound-world too long – it takes almost five minutes before it starts living – and having seen the opera in the theatre in company with 1200 children in ages between 6 and 12 I know that they feel the same. Once into the first act the performance caught fire and then we were suddenly at the end before one could say Jack Robinson.
The sets are attractive and the opera is filmed in a rather straight-forward way but with fine care for interesting details. My appetite for more productions from the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau has certainly been whetted.
Göran Forsling


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