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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921)
Hansel and Gretel - a fairy tale in three acts (1893)
Gretel - Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Hansel - Alice Coote (mezzo)
Gertrude (Mother) - Rosalind Plowright (mezzo)
Peter (Father) - Alan Held (baritone)
The Sandman - Sasha Cooke(mezzo)
The Dew Fairy - Lisette Oropesa (soprano)
The Witch - Philip Langridge (tenor)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Children’s Chorus Director: Elena Doria
rec. live, Met, 1 January 2008
Production: Richard Jones
Set and Costume Designer: John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Linda Dobell
Colour: NTSC System Filmed in High Definition
Disc Format DVD9
Sound Formats: LPCM Stereo DTS 5.1 surround
Region free, NTSC DVD designed for playback on all NTSC and modern PAL-compatible systems worldwide.
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English (sung language), German, French, Italian, Spanish
DVD contains an electronic booklet in pdf form which can be accessed from any computer equipped with a DVD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat 6.0
EMI CLASSICS 2063089 8 DVD [120.45]
Experience Classicsonline

 

Humperdinck wrote this opera in response to his sister’s ‘loosely’ dramatised version of the Grimm fairy tale. In this production parts have become a pantomime ‘loosely’ based on Humperdinck’s opera: so really an open sesame for whatever the director wants with two qualifications: first, excellent acting and second, some serious singing.

As the gushing Renée Fleming reminds us in her introduction, it is traditional to put on this opera at Christmas/New Year. This film of the production at the Metropolitan Opera House New York, was recorded on New Year’s Day 2008. It gets little bums on big seats and, via live simultaneous worldwide cinema broadcast, it intends to widen its audience-base, about which more anon.

It might be an exaggeration to say that to take the magic away from a fairy-tale is to emasculate it, but by replacing The Wicked Witch with a pantomime dame (played by a man, of course) is getting towards that. To replace the angels guarding our two heroic children in the magical dream sequence with lumpen unattractive Disney type chef characters presenting a banquet is just that; particularly when you allow those children to tell each other later of their dream of the angels. That is either careless or contemptuous of audience attention to detail.

As I have said, there is more to this production, updated to the 1950s than the ‘loose’ approach to direction, but just to get the last ‘loose’ point out of the way, I think that the translation is also somewhat loose or free with its approach to the text. The ‘more’, oh so much more, is the acting and singing. Sung in English it is fundamental that the diction is clear: and what a crackingly good job the singers make of this particular hurdle. It takes effort but the reward is a clearly told story – which brings into sharp relief some of the points I have made above.

Alice Coote (Hansel) and Christine Schäfer (Gretel) are splendidly matched; physical build, costume detail, vocal balance with some stunning mutual support in duets. It is tempting to take the singing as a ‘given’ and concentrate on pin toes, half mast socks, a brave boy running out from behind his sister and darting back again having delivered a defiant response, smocked dress and shirt; but those are indeed the ‘givens’ which are presented so well. Yes they are adults acting as children but they carry it off enchantingly.

Although in the opening scene Schäfer, at the lowest point of her register, speaks, as opposed to sings, the occasional word, later at the same level she produces a generously creamy sound. Her middle and highs are ringingly clear with a relaxing tonal beauty. I particularly enjoyed the honey-toned piano of her opening of Act 2 with gentle colouring.

Generally Coote does not have many opportunities for individual vocal display but at all times she demonstrates a beautifully toned legato. Throughout the opera she and Schäfer are an excellent vocal foil for, or complement to, each other. I doubt that I will hear and see a more movingly delivered evening prayer, entitled here Where each child lays down its head (track 17)

Rosalind Plowright is an outstanding Gertrude (Mother). She displays with awesome clarity the despair caused by grinding poverty. The make-up is excellent - an example is the peroxide blonde hair with long dark roots. Let’s not forget a down-market twin-set and pencil skirt – she even manages the haunted look of terrible hunger. She produces a somewhat harsh timbre before her interrupted overdose - a modern fairy-tale indeed. When food arrives she converts herself to the busy wife and tones down her timbre upon her husband’s arrival to match his rounder sound.

Powerfully built Alan Held as Peter (Father) looks anything but ground–down - let us not cavil: pace Deborah Voigt and ROH. Having had a successful broom-selling day, he is the epitome of the workman flushed by alcohol and his own achievement. Held’s rich baritone reflects this; a huge theatre filling deep brown sound. His portrayal of the witches in At night it’s a gruesome and sordid place (track 10), with strong dynamics, is suitably intimidating.

The ‘bonus’ explanation of the Sandman is of a very very old person that "you might see in a hospital or old folks’ home". Visually there would be no possibility of recognising Sasha Cooke, or anyone else under those prosthetics, but fortunately her voice is unimpaired. With a slightly crisp timbre, balanced by gentle colours, her piano and pianissimo sound the ideal givers of sleep.

Lisette Oropesa, in 1950s green day frock with pink ‘marigold’ gloves and pathetic little wings on her back, is more Fairy Liquid than Dew Fairy. Although when seriously above the stave she sounds uncomfortable, she produces a mid-range smooth sound with a very controlled and impressive vibrato to awaken her charges.

Philip Langridge, cast as The Witch but here more The Dame, including having his face pushed into a large cream cake, takes to the role with undisguised glee. He skips about the stage as one many decades younger. An audience ‘boo’ or shout of ‘he’s behind you’ would not have been entirely out of place for this portrayal. His years of stage experience show in so many ways but importantly in keeping the action bubbling along at a merry pace. Vocally the years are beginning to tell but truly only ‘beginning’. There is still the superb phrasing and clarity of diction which even this almost frenetic performance cannot conceal. His tenor still has that recognisably clear tone for those occasions when he stands still long enough to become Humperdinck’s witch as opposed to Jones’ dame.

There is only one word for the orchestral performance under Jurowski: stunning. He tones down the Wagner of the overture and emphasises the lyricism. For me there are many suggestions of hymn tunes of the nineteenth century - Humperdinck composed this between 1890 and 1893 - which he melds into a flowing musical introduction. He brings out the soft textures – particularly in the Prelude to the last act where his deceptively relaxed style keeps the brass in rein whilst letting other wind and the strings hold sway. Even The Witches Ride at the end of act 1 is a disciplined affair, not helter-skelter, but with controlled urgency giving way with perfect pace variation to the scene-setting for the wood.

A word must be said about the chorus of children – not least because Renée Fleming excitedly tells us that her daughter is one of them. They are best described as "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed", enthusiastic, responsive with the clarity of voice that is the hallmark of the carefully trained little person – although some of them are not so little.

That brings me back to the production. The gingerbread children’s sight should be restored by the laying on of Gretel’s hands with its biblical connotations and their limb release by Hansel’s recital of the spell. Here the spell does both which for me reduces first the impact of this moving resurrection and second the force of the finale as written, and maintained in this production, of God holding out His hand in need.

This performance is one of many, broadcast live to cinemas around the world, as part of the Metropolitan’s drive towards greater accessibility – a pseudonym for widening the audience base to increase the percentage of tickets sold for each performance the better to balance the books: and there is nothing wrong with any of that. It is to be applauded loudly. And it may well work in the very large cities, I do not know, not having attended such venues or seen the figures. Those performances that I have attended in two small towns have only attracted disappointing numbers (cinemas about only 20% full) and not youthful attendees at that. However, from little acorns .... we can only hope.

As I have said above, this DVD is of the live performance, and the viewer will see no difference between the large cinema screen and the home screen. The advantage of either is the opportunity for close-ups of orchestra or cast but that is also its inherent disadvantage against the live performance. I have to watch what the cameraman or video editor decides I shall watch; it is excellent for this production but absolutely not so for another similar live-to -screen performance I attended.

I am assuming that this production attracts you because it is "updated". A more conventional production is the Deutsche Grammophon (00440 073 4110). The sound was recorded in 1980 and the performance filmed in 1981. A conventional production, directed by August Everding, with some equally strong singing: some flying broomsticks, but not of Harry Potter standard, and a strong performance from Sena Jurinac as the witch. Accepting that it is inevitably dated my only real reservation would be that the Fassbaender and Gruberova ‘children’ do not match the childish behaviour so captivatingly displayed by Schäfer and Coote.

The almost opposite of that production approach is to let act 1 look after itself (so to speak) and then to let the characters from a selection of fairy tales have free rein first on brilliant silhouettes and then moving in and out of the woods. Make the angels staircase a children’s slide, the angels themselves a deliciously outrageously be-costumed ballet and the witch a siren becoming a modern ‘I want to be loved’ devil. That is Katharine Thalbach’s production for Dresden (Euro Arts arte edition 2055888)

For another review of the Metropolitan production do not miss that of my colleague Simon Thompson.

Finally I would mention the question of value for money. With the Metropolitan production coming out at only slightly over half the cost of the other two mentioned DVDs then for me there is no contest.

Robert McKechnie

A virtuoso musical and acting performance ... see Full Review


 


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