The Royal Opera House’s Christmas treat for 2008 was a
new production of Humperdinck’s evergreen Hansel and
, amazingly the company’s first performances
since 1937! I was lucky enough to attend a performance - the
night this was filmed, in fact - and I brought one of my dear
friends who was attending her first opera. We both enjoyed it
immensely and happily the all-star production was filmed. It
was relayed by the BBC on Christmas Day and the DVD has now arrived.
Not only was the production a great one to attend as a first
opera, but the DVD is perhaps as good an introduction to opera
as one could hope for, a success on almost every front.
First plaudits must go to Colin Davis and the orchestra who anchor
the set in the finest manner possible. The orchestral playing
in the Overture is warm and sumptuous, a gorgeous Wagnerian glow
hanging over the opening horn theme. The orchestra’s contribution
is above praise throughout, helped by truly superb sound if listening
on DTS Surround. I was really startled by how clearly everything
was captured on all 6 speakers, so full marks to Opus Arte for
that. Davis knows and loves this score and he shapes each phrase
with real affection, from the gentleness of the forest twilight
to the harrumphing dance that accompanies the witch’s hysterics
in the kitchen. His is the hand of a master and it is he who
got the warmest ovation on the night.
The singers are excellent too. We are more used to seeing Kirchschlager
and Damrau playing vamps like Melisande or the Queen of the Night,
but they assume the roles of the children with remarkable success.
Their voices are still recognisable and distinctive, but they
seem to have pared them down so as to match the innocence of
their characters, feeling light and carefree for the first act,
but conveying genuine terror in the central section of Act 2.
They are well characterised as individuals too, Kirchschlager
cocky in acting and bullish in voice, Damrau much more vulnerable
in her actions and sweeter of voice. I loved the little touches
like the poster of the ballerina on Greta’s bedroom wall
and their cheeky laughter as they smash the milk-jug. One feels
real affection for them in the darkness of the forest and we
share their elation as they triumph over the witch in the high-jinx
of Act 3. A triumphant pair of performances.
The same can be said for mother and father: Elizabeth Connell
is super as the harassed mother, shrill and hysterical as she
tells the children off, but jolly when she hears of father’s
success. Thomas Allen swaggers jovially when he enters, rather
tipsily, in Act 1 and his jolly demeanour seems to love the joke
of the children’s mischief. Then he turns instantly as
he hears of their trip into the forest, conveying the witch’s
sinister ride with a touch of terror. They go very well together
and we believe that these are two characters who have been married
for most of their lives. The minor roles are taken well: one
perhaps wishes that the Sandman had taken a little more time
to warm up but the Dew Fairy is bright and clear, like the morning
she describes. The children’s chorus are quite enchanting
for their pianissimo entry, but finish the opera with the gusto
and energy they should.
In the theatre I was not at all convinced by Anja Silja’s
Witch because, to be blunt, she has almost no voice left. She
sounds shrill and strained and there is little power left in
what was once one of the great voices of the twentieth century.
On the screen, though, I found her much more convincing. The
piercing harshness of her voice actually helps her to convey
the sheer nastiness of the witch, and her histrionic portrayal
of the character is quite hilarious in close-up. The directors
have been careful to depict her with all the everyday touches
that children react against, including twin-set and pearls, outdated
dress sense and a Zimmer which she clearly doesn’t need.
The appealing thing about Silja is the way she throws caution
to the winds, shrieking with delight as she prepares her brew
and managing a marvellous scream as she is pushed into the oven.
She is also deliciously sinister in her first interaction with
the children, particularly as she whispers the spells. Somewhat
bizarrely, Silja made her first entrances in the theatre sporting
a massive pair of plastic bosoms over her cardigan. These were
edited out for the TV relay, but readers will be pleased to note
that they are reinstated for the DVD.
The production is very watchable, mainly conventional with costumes
placing it some time in the mid 20th
house in Act 1 is poky and a little psychedelic, while the forest’s
minimalist setting allows it quickly to be transformed into the
witch’s kitchen, which sports two industrial ovens and
a larder full of dead children waiting to be cooked into gingerbread.
It is slightly comical but darkly sinister too, just like the
original fairytale. The dream pantomime sets a festive scene
where mother and father give the children Christmas presents
of big sandwiches in front of a roaring fire. The angels themselves
are sylvan creatures with dormouse faces, quite appropriate for
the middle of a forest and charmingly effective. Plenty of little
touches enliven the action, such as the Dew Fairy’s Kim-and-Aggie
look as she cleans up the forest in the morning.
All told then this is a very successful issue, with only one
major reservation: the price. In their wisdom Opus Arte have
decided to release the opera on two
DVDs. This is entirely
unnecessary: an opera of this length could easily have been fitted
onto one disc, even with the extras included. These comprise
some picture galleries and interviews with conductor, cast and
directors, together with rehearsal footage. They are fine, but
they certainly don’t justify the price hike, and their
brevity means that they need not have forced the opera onto another
disc. This was a serious misjudgement, especially in the light
of the strong competition for this opera on DVD (see here
review of Richard Jones’ excellent Met production). I fear
Opus Arte may have priced themselves out of the market (Editor's
note - the price is not that of two full-price DVDs, fitting
into the low end of the midprice range).