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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel and Gretel (1893)
Christine Schäfer (soprano) – Gretel
Alice Coote (mezzo) – Hansel
Rosalind Plowright (mezzo) – Gertrude (Mother)
Alan Held (baritone) – Peter (Father)
Sasha Cooke (soprano) – The Sandman
Lisette Oropesa (soprano) – The Dew Fairy
Philip Langridge (tenor) – The Witch
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus/Vladimir Jurowski
Richard Jones (Production)
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1 January 2008
Originally transmitted live to cinemas
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ratio: 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround


Experience Classicsonline

The Metropolitan Opera’s current General Manager, Peter Gelb, has turned the Met into New York’s hottest ticket. A host of new productions, top stars and shrewd publicity campaigns have helped the Met to reclaim its role as the USA’s premier opera house. Perhaps Gelb’s greatest legacy, however, will be his access initiatives. He brought forward an abridged, English-language version of The Magic Flute for January 2007, specifically aimed at introducing younger children to opera. Such an initiative would have been unheard of under Joe Volpe, his predecessor, and by all accounts it was a great success. However, his widest-ranging access initiative, and the one which other houses around the world are following, has been the Live-in-HD cinema relays. The Met has used these to open its doors to viewers around the world who would never be able to attend a performance in the house. While expensive for a cinema ticket (UK shows average around £25) the Met relays are hugely popular and provide quite a unique experience. The ones I’ve attended have had a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, with music lovers getting together in a casual environment to enjoy great music performed by great artists. What’s more, it’s an actual live performance you’re watching, unlike a DVD, so there is a frisson of expectation and the knowledge that anything can go wrong. The picture and sound quality are fantastic and, as one newspaper reviewer put it, it’s not like having the best seat in the house: it’s like having all the best seats in the house at once. The viewer is also guided around the work by a celebrity interviewer, normally a star singer, and we are taken backstage and given interviews with the principals. The Met have just released a series of the 2007-8 HD relays onto EMI DVDs, at a low price, and they work just as well in the living room.

Hansel and Gretel was Gelb’s New Year treat for 2008, and this DVD was originally relayed on New Year’s Day itself. It’s Richard Jones’ dark production which started life at WNO, and our host is the pulchritudinous Renée Fleming. It’s in English, another outreach endeavour, and Fleming declares it an “intriguing and updated version.” Jones, according to Fleming, sees food and hunger as the main themes of the opera, and consequently he sets each act in a different kind of kitchen. Each stage curtains is a place set for dinner, stained red (with blood or forest berries?) before Act 3, cracked and broken after the witch’s death. Jones is in touch with the murky side of this work, which we see as soon as the curtain goes up. Hansel and Gretel’s kitchen is tiny and bare, enclosed within a fraction of the Met’s vast stage. There is very little furniture, the cupboards are all empty, and the room is badly in need of redecoration; from the outset Jones hammers home the desperate poverty of this wretched household. The children seem desperately bored in addition to their hunger. There are also subtle hints of violence in the family: when mother arrives home the English translation gives her some unusually harsh rebukes for her children (“Damn you… you runts!”). When father finds out that mother has sent the children into the forest he swings for her and she cowers from him as if used to the treatment. 

The two leads are successful in inhabiting the persona of 10-year old children. Alice Coote is particularly convincing as a young boy. There is something convincingly tomboyish about her portrayal, from the way she carries her body through to the details of her costume: she has one sock up and one scruffily rolled down throughout the performance. Christine Schäfer is also fine as the little girl. Her English diction isn’t as good, though it improves through the evening. She isn’t as good an actress as Coote, and there isn’t really enough contrast between the voices: Schäfer could be sweeter as the more innocent of the two, particularly in Act 2. One quickly accepts them both as children, though, and the contrast is underlined when the first adult enters. This mother is haggard: her circumstances (and her naughty children) have taken their toll on her. Rosalind Plowright looks the part admirably, and her voice finds a shrill, shrewish tone to match. Her foul mouth and her roughness with the children is quite shocking, as is the moment when she is driven to taking pills when the children leave. Her action (an overdose?) is averted at the sound of father’s voice. Alan Held’s warm affectionate tone provides a welcome contrast to the female voices and he blusters in cheerfully, his “Tra-la-la-las” ringing out clearly before we see him. His description of the witch’s house at the end of Act 1 is delightful, and induces mother to vomit up her dinner in horror! 

Act 1, then, is full of a gritty realism we do not normally associate with this opera. With Act 2, though, the fantastical elements kick in. Act 2’s forest is a huge, bare kitchen decorated with leafy wallpaper and an antler chandelier. Its only furniture is a very long dining table. Sinister men dressed as trees line the walls and it is from their pockets that Hansel picks the berries. The first part of the scene, particularly the cuckoo sequence, is beautifully atmospheric. As the children realise that they are lost Jones conveys their terrified loneliness by having them sit at opposite ends of the vast table. The trees turn on them and close in threateningly as their panic sets in. Jones’s striking Sandman is a wizened old man, creepy yet reassuring. Sasha Cooke’s voice is rather shrill for the role, but she acts it well. The evening prayer is taken slowly but sounds beautiful. Rather than having fourteen angels for the dream sequence, the children dream of fourteen chefs who, with aid of a fish-footman, lay out a sumptuous banquet for them. It’s an appropriate and lovely way to end the act. After the interval we see the same scene with the Dew Fairy, a model American housewife from Good Housekeeping of the 1950s. She does the washing up as she wakes the children. 

The children are tempted into the witch’s kitchen by a vast black forest gateau. The kitchen itself is like a bunker: signs around the wall (in German) warn of the dangers of explosion or asphyxiation. There is no doubt that this is a prison, in spite of the gorgeous food we see everywhere. Philip Langridge’s witch is a delight. Unrecognisable under his make-up, he hurls himself into his role as a demented old crone. There is nothing supernatural about this witch: instead she comes across as a creepy but disturbingly normal old woman, like a sinister granny complete with pearls. Her physical contact with the children is unsettlingly close, however, almost suggesting grooming. Langridge acts with brilliant mania, concocting his malevolent brew out of all manner of goodies on his table and dancing with real malevolent energy until his demise in the oven. His voice, always recognisable, never spills into Sprechstimme, however, and he never forgets that he is singing wonderful music. The chorus of gingerbread children sing and act well, though the Americanisation of their English is rather too obvious! 

Jurowski directs the orchestra with precision and flair. There is a burnished glow to the opening phrases of the Overture, which is then followed by a bumptious swing in the march. The interludes and pantomime are well paced and the quality of the recorded sound is splendid throughout. The camera direction is remarkable for a live performance: they have cameras everywhere! As well as spotlighting individual members of the orchestra during the overture they cover every inch of the stage and move around with precision, yet without drawing attention to themselves. 

The extras are generous too: we get two backstage interviews with the Met’s technical director who lets us in on some of the secrets of getting such a complicated set in place at the right time. There is also an interview with Coote and Schäfer about their roles, and a short film about John Macfarlane, the set and costume designer. These are all informative and good fun and, sensibly, they are banded separately as extras rather than embedded in the film as they would have been during the relay. In addition, we see the principals being made-up during the overture, and we see the stage-hands moving the next set into place during the Witch’s Ride. 

A dark, yet satisfying version of the story, then. It won’t please traditionalists, who would be better off with August Everding’s classic Vienna film with Gruberova and Fassbaender, but the performances all sound great and the film still conveys the excitement of a live event. Let’s hope Gelb gives us many more.

Simon Thompson


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